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|The Amazing Story Of The Lobster ; From Grass To Grace by HighBK: 6:25am On Oct 28, 2014|
The surprising history—from food for the poor, servants, and prisoners to a soldier’s staple to everybody’s idea of a delicacy—of “the cockroach of the ocean.” Or, one of the most remarkable rebrandings in product history.
Until the mid-1800s, lobster was considered a terrible, low-class food. It was frequently served to prison inmates, and servants often had conditions in their employment contracts stating that they refused to eat lobster more than twice a week.
Some states even had laws against serving lobsters to prisoners more than a few times per week, since it was considered a cruel punishment, similar to being forced to eat rats.
Have you eaten a menu with lobster before? Expensive, right? But worth every kobo. It's just so delicious!
It wasn’t always like this. If today’s lobster wears a top hat and an opera cape, 80 years ago he was wearing overalls and picking up your garbage. Lobster is a self-made creature, and quite the social climber.
Lobsters were so abundant in the early days—residents in the Massachusetts Bay Colony found they washed up on the beach in two-foot-high piles—that people thought of them as trash food. It was fit only for the poor and served to servants or prisoners. In 1622, the governor of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford, was embarrassed to admit to newly arrived colonists that the only food they “could presente their friends with was a lobster … without bread or anyhting else but a cupp of fair water” (original spelling preserved). Later, rumor has it, some in Massachusetts revolted and the colony was forced to sign contracts promising that indentured servants wouldn’t be fed lobster more than three times a week.
“Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation,” wrote John J. Rowan in 1876. Lobster was an unfamiliar, vaguely disgusting bottom feeding ocean dweller that sort of did (and does) resemble an insect, its distant relative. The very word comes from the Old English loppe, which means spider. People did eat lobster, certainly, but not happily and not, usually, openly. Through the 1940s, for instance, American customers could buy lobster meat in cans (like spam or tuna), and it was a fairly low-priced can at that. In the 19th century, when consumers could buy Boston baked beans for 53 cents a pound, canned lobster sold for just 11 cents a pound. People fed lobster to their cats.
Admittedly, lobster was cooked dead back then, like most meats, and not live, as it is now, which is perhaps how it got so tasty. But more on that later.
What’s interesting is that just because a food is delicious doesn’t necessarily make it popular. (As David Foster Wallace wrote in his famous 2004 article “Consider the Lobster,” “The meat is richer and more substantial than most fish, its taste subtle compared to the marine-gaminess of mussels and clams.”)
So how did lobster move up in the world? Basically, it worked like this. In the early days, lobster was plentiful, so abundant it was cheap to prepare and good nutritious food to serve to servants and the incarcerated. Maine was dotted with lobster canneries in the 1800s. Back then, lobsters were huge. Factories considered four- or five-pound lobsters too small. But, in the words of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, “canneries were so efficient at processing that they were soon forced to work with smaller lobsters.”
But lobsters were still abundant, even if smaller. And when the railways started to spread through America, transportation managers realized something interesting: If no one knew what lobster was, trains could serve it to passengers as if it were a rare, exotic item, even thought it was very cheap for those running the railroad to procure it. Inland passengers were intrigued. This lobster was delicious. Passengers, who didn’t know lobster was considered trash food on the coast, started to love it and began to ask for it even after they left the train. It became a popular food. By the 1880s chefs had discovered that lobster was a lot better, and looked a lot more appetizing, if they cooked it live than if they killed it first and cooked it later. Restaurants first started to serve lobster in the 1850s and ’60s in the salad section, like bread and butter pickles or cottage cheese.
And then something interesting happened. Americans had started to like lobster, even in this cheap-o salad bar way, and so they demanded more of it. And fishermen noticed there were fewer lobster, driving the price up
But the lobster didn’t entirely lose its trailer trash reputation. During the Great Depression, impoverished families in Maine would sneak down to the ocean in the dark to empty and reset their lobster traps and take home the day’s haul to feed their families. It was still seen, at least in Maine, as a food for the poor. It was considered embarrassing for children to have to go to school with sandwiches made of lobster meat.
During World War II, however, lobster wasn’t rationed like other foods, and so people of all classes began to eat it enthusiastically, and discover its deliciousness. By the 1950s lobster was firmly established as a delicacy; lobster was something movie stars ate when they went out to dinner. It was the sort of thing girls from new-rich families ordered for their weddings, something the Rockefellers served at their parties.
In most restaurants now the lobster sells at “market rate,” as it says on the menu, and people eat lobster meals on picnic tables near the ocean in Maine or Cape Cod, thinking this is the way a fancy New England vacation should play out. And, indeed, it is. As Foster Wallace wrote, “Lobster is posh, a delicacy, only a step or two down from caviar.”
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