The Terrible Truth About Lobster

April 18, 2014

Were seafood aware of the divine right, lobster would be king.  On the North Shore, we are lucky to have some of the best lobster  – be it a buttery-delicious lobster roll at Woodman’s of Essex, Turner Seafood’s specialty baked lobster, or the quintessential New England lobster bake at the Gloucester House.

While today, it is considered a delicacy, lobster has a dark past which would probably shock many a lobster enthusiast.  …Okay, maybe not “shock,” but it would come as a surprise that lobster is the Cinderella of crustaceans, once considered so worthless and repulsive that even servants and slaves turned their noses up at it.

When the settlers first arrived to Massachusetts in the 17th century, lobster was abundant.  Lobster would wash right up on shore in big piles and people would just pick them up and bring them home for dinner.  As we have learned with commemorative Elvis plates and coins sold on late-night TV, when there’s a lot of something to go around, it depreciates in value.  This abundance, combined with the fact that the crustacean looks like an insect (the word “lobster” even comes from the Old English word “loppestre,” meaning “spidery creature.”) made lobster a poor man’s dish, only suited to feed slaves, servants, prisoners, and children.  We’d like to think that, when it came to the children, lobster was the 18th-19th century equivalent of lima beans or brussel sprouts.  It is said that many servants, we assume taking full advantage of their societal station over prisoners, slaves, and kids, had stipulations in their contracts stating that they would not eat lobster more than 2-3 times a week.

All of this changed in the late 18th century with the railroad.  Lobster was cheap and plentiful (and often canned, taking its place alongside tuna and Spam), making it a good food to serve on trains.  Passengers from around the country weren’t aware of New England’s aversion to lobster and found the seafood quite tasty.  Mind you, New Englander’s issues with lobster had nothing to do with flavor or taste – their dislike stemmed from the fact that it was cheap and looked like a bug.  When lobster caught on with the fancy railroad travel crowd, the upper class in Boston and New York jumped on the bandwagon, cementing lobster’s place as a seafood delicacy.

The story, however, does not necessarily end there.  With this new-found popularity, lobster prices rose higher and higher.  When the Great Depression hit, people just couldn’t afford to buy lobster.  What goes up must come down and, by World War II, canned lobster was being pushed on reluctant soldiers stationed abroad.

Unlike many other foods during the second World War, however, lobster was not rationed.  With not a lot of other choices, people began eating lobster and, once again, realized that it was quite tasty.  Lobster caught its second wind and once again rose in popularity among high society and celebrities.  Today, we still consider lobster a delicious delicacy.

Sources: A Taste of Lobster History

How Lobster Got Fancy