ONE SCENE | Archipelago

Meat is nature and meals are culture, but when the former is turned into the latter that fundamental boundary is breached, and all the anxieties it shores up come to the fore. By Louis Rogers

Edward’s family have hired Rose, a professional cook, for the duration of their holiday, so that they can concentrate on the gentle hues of the Scilly landscape and eviscerating each other with sidelong glances. One day, they put in a request for lobster. Rose brings it back from the harbour and cooks it using a supposedly ethical method: placing the animal in tepid water then bringing it up to the boil, so as to induce a coma in which it can slip peacefully from this world. 

Lobster preparation is an infamously queasy job, requiring more engagement than usual with the reality of meat-eating. It might be so unsettling because it disturbs boundaries that otherwise keep certain categories – like animal and meat – palatably separated. In The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss theorised that societies are structured around such divisions. The animal is nature, meat is culture: in “culinary operations” that divide is broached, and also enforced. Rose’s culinary operations – turning the live lobster into dinner, for example – reflect the deeply entrenched cultural divisions that shape Edward and his family’s life, such as those that keep Rose in the kitchen and them in the dining room. 

While she cooks the lobster, Edward is hanging around the kitchen. To his sister’s and mother’s annoyance, he insists on keeping the staff company. With his desperately unstrained sincerity, unmistakably minted in English public schools, Edward seems perfectly oblivious that rather than subverting the conventional boundaries separating him and Rose, he’s simply demanding a different kind of professional duty from her in her amiable responses. As the lobster rattles the lid of its pan, the raw is still kept from the cooked. When the climactic eruption of simmering resentments comes in a later dinner scene, it’s no coincidence that it hinges on Edward’s sister’s mortal fear that her guinea fowl has been undercooked.

 

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