How lobster got fancy
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. [Fascinating look at food history – with an American historial perspective.]
Ordering lobster in a restaurant, serving lobster at a party, indicating that one’s favorite food is lobster is not at all the same thing as doing all of that with, say, turkey, or even something more exotic like lamb.
No, lobster is money. It’s also delicious, of course, but lobster means an abandonment of thrift and signifies the use of coin for the pursuit of pleasure.
Here’s Greg Elwell in the Oklahoma Gazette: “Lobster is fancy. If you imagine a lobster talking, it probably has a British accent. Draw an animated lobster and I bet you’ll include a top hat, a monocle, and an opera cape.”
Elwell is making a joke, but it’s based on the hard fact that lobster is really expensive. Prices are tied directly to the supply of the animal and how much of it lobstermen are able to catch.
That sounds like it should be obvious; it’s basic supply and demand. But it’s unlike other American foods — corn, wheat, beef — where there’s an artificial government-imposed pricing structure at work. That means the price of lobster can surge 18 percent in one year, as it did in 2012. It now costs about $7.95 a pound, though some years it costs as much as $14. For a whole family to have lobsters at one to two pounds each, this gets very pricey very quickly.
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, rumour 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…..
Pacific Standard: Read the full article
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