The Boston outlet of Morton’s, a Chicago-based steakhouse chain, sits across the street from Boston Harbor in a newly developed part of town called the Seaport. Inside, Morton’s has a clubby feel—all hushed tones and white linen and dark paneling. The bad lighting makes it hard to read the prices, which are high, so perhaps that’s the point. I guess it’s a very nice restaurant, but it reminds me more of the kind of place my parents might think of as a very nice restaurant: When a group of us walked in one recent night, it was a little like entering a private inner chamber. We weren’t exactly rowdy—but, still, it felt like the Laugh-In party of seven had just crashed Masterpiece Theatre.
Morton’s is known for its beef. Right away, after you’re seated, a waiter trots over, parading raw steaks on a wheeled display cart. He takes a lot of time, table side, to explain the various samples of meat and the characteristics of each cut, but still I can’t grasp the difference between a porterhouse, or a NY strip, or a double-cut filet. In my mind, I instead give each a name: One as big as a shoebox. Oval with bone. Size of a Chihuahua’s head.
Each steak is gargantuan, with the overfed and solid look of a linebacker. The other things on the rolling display are huge, too: An entire head of broccoli, a potato the size of a shot-put. But what caught my attention was a colossal green-black lobster perched on a plastic tray, his powerful claws neutered by thick rubber bands. The creature was motionless, so it took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t, as I originally thought, dead. Its slick antennae whips suddenly twitched and its stalked eyes seemed to dart about, as if to silently signal a frantic recommendation that diners try the steaks.
Lots of seafood restaurants—and some grocery stores—warehouse live lobsters in saltwater tanks until a customer picks one out. You carry it home live, boil a pot of water, drop the lobster in, and then wait for it to stop thrashing and clanging its claws against the kettle before you lift it out and, soon after, begin a different kind of wrestling—cracking the shell, picking out the edible parts, and tossing aside the icky stuff. Set aside for a minute the moral issue of cooking a creature alive, the lobster is easy to cook but considerably more work to eat.
For about $120, Morton’s eases the process for diners. The restaurant doesn’t have a tank; instead, lobsters are warehoused on ice in a walk-in cooler, except for when they take a wheeled tour around the dining room. Lobsters can survive outside of the water this way for 12 hours or more, our waiter explained. They remain alive, but the cold renders them fairly listless and limp, like a cucumber that spends too long in the crisper drawer.
That explanation, and the lobster’s sorry fate, made me feel immediately sad for the creature. I stared into its pinched, plated face, at his black beady eyes which for years had surveyed nothing but the murky sea bottom. Those black eyes failed him, I guess, when they couldn’t discern that the tangle of net securing the bait in the lobster trap would instantly signal an end to life as he knew it. Instead, for the lobster, life became an endless parade around the dining room. Perhaps he thought it couldn’t get worse. Of course, it would.
My friend Amber Naslund, seated two seats away from me, said I was being ridiculous. The lobster didn’t have a clue what was going on, she said, adding by way of explanation: “It’s a bug! It’s a giant bug! That lives in the water!”
It’s true that the lobster looks closer to a swollen grasshopper than, say, a cocker spaniel. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with the scene in Morton’s: Here we were, a jolly bunch out for an expense-account dinner, each of us sure that we had a job, money in our wallets, and the love of those waiting at home for our eventual return. And what was the lobster sure of? What did he know now, except for a consuming fear and misery? His life, his future, was in our hands. His poor soul, bearing silent witness to the happy excess at our table—and 50 more like ours around the dining room—made Morton’s the stage something of a medieval spectacle, tortured and grotesque.
“Does that comparison seem a bit much?” the renowned late author David Foster Wallace wrote in his August 2004 feature on lobsters for Gourmet magazine, when he compared Maine Lobster Festival (occurring again in a few weeks) to a Roman circus, among other things. For Wallace, his visit to Maine inspired a fearless look at the ethics of boiling an animal alive, as the realities of the scene left “no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.” And so it was in Morton’s that night: When the thing is inches away and staring at you, there is no conscious way to sidestep the issue.
If you think I’m carrying things too far here, then you’ll likely be appalled at what happened next. Because Amber, who is brave and decisive and unflinching in a way that I am passive and mournful and silent, suddenly snapped open her purse, counted out several twenties, and threw them on the table. “Let’s free him!” she dared us. “Who’s in?”
There was only the tiniest stunned silence before the rest of us around the table (Greg, Mack, Tim, Doug, and Justin) were in on the plot, unfolding bills and tossing them onto hers. Suddenly, the whole thing amped up into a kind of frenzied rescue operation. The next thing I knew, we were on our feet and parading the lobster for a final time through Morton’s—Amber was carrying him this time, cradling him the way Mary herself might have protected an infant Jesus—out of the front door and across the windswept street toward the Harbor.
“Wait!” someone from the restaurant called after us, and our waiter emerged from the small puzzled crowd of staff and a few diners who had gathered at the entry. “You’ll need these to clip his paws!” And he pressed a pair of scissors into my hand. Paws. “Did you hear that?” I yelled at the others, over the wind.
The lobster’s release was swift. There was a kind of small ceremony on the drizzly dockside, and someone quickly christened him the luckiest lobster alive—and, at that, the name Lucky was his. With a grisly sounding snip he was freed from his thick rubber-band shackles; then he was overboard and disappeared below the surface of the brown water.
In my memory, his reunion with the sea was climactic. I remember a giddy scramble toward the water, his graceful swoop toward the surface, and his landing with a small but satisfyingly final splash. But the whole thing was captured on video by my friend Justin Cresswell, and, in truth, when I watched it later, the release was nothing like that: Instead the lobster lurched away from us with a kind of contempt, and I have no doubt that had my hand wandered too close to his fantastic paws he would have had no qualms about snipping off a finger. He landed in the water awkwardly, upside down, and seemed to sink like a cannonball.
That’s the problem with video. It doesn’t allow you to hold your memories the way you want, like a photograph does. It forces you to accept them as they really were. Which is why, when I think of Lucky’s release, I think of the waiter’s last mention of him, and the way he referred to his two powerful pinchers as “paws.” The waiter was not a native speaker of English, so maybe he confused “claws” with “paws.” But I prefer to think otherwise. I like to think that he thought of the lobster a little bit like I did—less Jurassic Park and more Lassie. Maybe the creature was more like a bug than a puppy dog. But he was, all the same, something in need of rescue.