Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cold Lobster and Cranky Collegues

Could it be, after all these years, that lobster is best served cold? I'm just back from a conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where, at the banquet, we were served fairly scrawny, but delicious, lobsters, chilled on ice and accompanied by piping hot butter. Cold lobster was a revelation. I’d once heard tell of it served cold for New Years in Nova Scotia, but I’d never tried it myself. Unfortunately, I had a hard time focusing-in on the culinary delights, having failed to avoid a heated exchange with a distinguished colleague just prior to the meal. Is there a lesson (or two) in this?

I began eating lobster at the age of two, so, as you might imagine, it was one of the foods that established me as “an eater.” I was never squeamish about the live boiling bit—I started dispatching crustaceans about as early as I started cooking anything—and I love the labour involved in extracting the meat from the shell once a lobster hits the plate. The work of shelling makes for a social meal: people laugh and talk as they inadvertently squirt one another with water and lobster innards. In fact, at our family vacation home on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, we’ve made it the regular Shabbat fare. A violation of the letter, perhaps, but not the spirit of the night. But I’ve always set in to eat the beasts as soon as they were cool enough to touch. Chilled on ice? Never.

It was also at about the age of two that I established myself as “an arguer.” A strong-willed kid, I accepted little (or nothing) without question, demanding explanations and proofs that, in turn, I was inclined to scrutinize. This tendency was much encouraged within my family, which, like many Jewish families, entertained the questioning of authority and delighted at the prospect of a child’s future career as a lawyer, or, somewhat less ideally, an academic. While this trait was decidedly less appreciated by my teachers (and sometimes peers), it nonetheless became a defining aspect of my personality. So, I was an eater and an arguer. A terrific combination!

And yet, there I was in Fredericton, with a heated argument distracting me from chilly lobster. The argument was probably about a few things. It was part academic turf battle, part my failure to meet an expectation of deference to seniority, and part a difference of academic philosophy. The last part is probably the most interesting. I think historians have a responsibility to be in conversation with one another. Each of our publications is necessarily imperfect, but hopefully our dialogue leads us somewhere interesting and useful. My interlocutor seemed to think that we should strive, when we publish, to offer a final word on a topic. He worries about “half baked” scholarship, whereas I see a shame in manuscripts wallowing in desk drawers while authors fret over possible blemishes. This all led to fairly raised voices.

Where does lobster fit in? I don’t know, maybe the point is that our personal patterns always run the risk being ruts. A defensible position doesn’t always need to be defended, especially if doing so runs the risk of putting a person off of his dinner. And maybe after a third of a century, I need to totally rethink the way that I am eating lobster.