Before it became a luxury product or a contemporary art icon, lobster was an affordable item. It cost next to nothing and was chiefly consumed by the poor. Today, it's a luxury crustacean and remains a status symbol on our dinner tables. But 150 years ago, it was nicknamed the "cockroach of the sea." This is the story of the tastiest of crustaceans across the ages, from anonymity to celebrity, from tin can to silver platter.
Started from the Bottom (of the sea) In the 17th century, when the first European pilgrims arrive to New England, they face an overpopulation of lobsters. In 1654, William Wood, a visiting historian to the region, writes: "Their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten [except by the Indians who] get many of them every day to bait their hooks with and eat when they can get no bass." What to do, then, with these unwanted 'cockroaches of the sea?' The answer: feed them to prisoners, servants, widows, and children." In the 18th century, however, servants in Massachusetts decide that they've had enough, and succeed in getting a clause added to their contract that states they cannot be fed lobster every day, but three times a week, maximum. It's a hard knock life for 18th century lobsters: During the tumultuous revolutionary period, "lobsterback" becomes the insult of choice to direct at British soldiers, who don red uniforms. The only consolation for the poor crustacean is that it was cooked dead at the time. No one had yet imagined that it should be thrown into boiling water alive in order to bring out the true essence of its flavor.
Tin Can Make-Over In the 19th century, the poor lobster still suffers from a widespread negative stigma. Essayist John Rowan explains in one of his works—whose title could use some editing—that when you find empty lobster shells outside of a house, it's often "a sign of poverty and degradation." How kind. In 1836, the B&M company (Burnham & Morrill) no longer knows what to do with the lobster surplus in Maine and Massachusetts. They are the first to make it a canned good, and succeed in commercializing the product outside of the United States. But even if it gets made over through this novel mode of conservation, it is still held in low esteem and is sold for a fifth of the cost of a can of "Boston baked beans." Nevertheless, in Maine, canned lobster factories flourish, and little by little, lobster is industrialized—so much so that the fishing of "small" lobsters is authorized. By 1850, some restaurants begin to serve it as an "affordable" salad topping. Is this a sign of impending glory for our Homarus Americanus friend? Not quite yet.
Railroads, Rebranding, and Consecration The present-day image of the lobster as a luxury product has a lot to do with the development of US railroads in the late 19th century. Around this time, meals are being offered for the first time aboard cross-country trains. Savvy train company directors decide to rebrand the lobster and offer it as an exotic, trendy commodity. This is clever for a number of reasons: Lobster is still cheap, and most passengers have no idea what kind of horrid reputation it has in the Northeast. Better yet, they find the dish delicious, and many flock to Boston to eat as much of it as possible. By 1880, American chefs finally take an interest in the animal and discover that its full spectrum of flavor is only brought out if it is submerged in boiling water while still alive. In Boston and New York, worldly folks come out of their shells and decide to reconsider the lobster as a dish worthy of their refined palates. To satisfy the growing demand, fishing guidelines are revised yet again to allow the capture of even smaller lobsters. And no one is overheard saying anything bad about lobsters anymore—quite the contrary.
Now, Here We Are In the 1920s, overfishing drastically reduces the availability of lobster, which consequently becomes a luxury product for those who want to live it up and taste Gatsby's favorite dish. The crustacean's price peaks and continues to increase throughout the decade.
A few years later, with the crash of 1929 and Great Depression, prices and demand plummet. In Maine, eating lobster becomes (once again) a social marker of poverty, leaving the poorest families to eat it in shame. In school, children try to trade their lobster sandwiches for peanut butter ones.
After the Second World War, things turn around and lobster is regarded again as a luxury product. It becomes a mainstay on the dinner tables of post-war Hollywood stars who consume it during decadent evenings out on the town. Overfishing reaches a pinnacle between 1950 and 1970, resulting in a major shortage and astronomical pricing. Authorities finally decide to regulate the fishing of the Homarus Americanus species.
Things remain relatively stable until 2012, when oceans experience a significant rise in temperature. As a consequence, lobster fishing is particularly fruitful that year (lobsters paradoxically love warm water and it encourages their growth). Supply outweighs demand, and lobster prices fall to levels comparable with the phenomenon of 1929.
We hope you inhaled a bevy of lobster rolls recently, though, because another shortage is slated to hit the 2015-2016 season. This time around, it's expected to be a particularly cold winter in Maine coupled by an incredibly high demand fueled by the Chinese market.
To think back to 150 years ago, if American train companies had chosen to serve smoked ham sandwiches instead of gleaming lobsters, we would have never gotten where to where we are today.
Lobster in Europe The European lobster a.k.a. gamarus lobster a.k.a. blue lobster, or simply Breton lobster (in France), has been enjoyed since antiquity. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it is thought to have had medicinal properties, and in the 17th century, it made appearances at joyous feasts organized by the upper classes. The animal even made its way into the still lives of Flemish painters such as Davidsz de Heem, Joris van Son and Pieter Van Overschee. The European lobster is more rare and more expensive than its North American cousin. Its bluish shell is spotted mainly in the eastern Atlantic and in the northern parts of the Mediterranean Sea. Taste-wise, its flesh is allegedly finer and firmer: a true delicacy of the sea that is greatly appreciated by contemporary epicureans. In terms of democratization of the dish, the Old World seems to be one step behind America, where you can order it between two slices of bread. In Europe, the crustacean is still reserved for special occasions and foodies who can afford it.
Would French people ever be willing to eat it out of a can? Perhaps only in a pinch.
What if, in the end, the best place for a lobster was at the end of a leash like a loving pet? At some point in the mid-19th century, Gérard de Nerval was found walking a lobster up the stairs of the Palais Royal. In response to the bewildered looks of passersby, the French poet retorted: "How is a lobster more ridiculous than a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion, or any other animal? I have an affinity for lobsters—they're easygoing and serious, they know the secrets of the sea, and they don't bark."
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES France.