This Fancy Entrée Was A 'Poor Man's Food' During the Great Depression
How did lobster go from being food for the poor, servants, and prisoners, to a soldier's staple, to everybody's idea of a delicacy? Let's dive in on one of the most remarkable re-brandings in history!
Lobster means money, if you're a seafood lover you know this already. Prices are tied directly to the supply of the animal and how much of it lobstermen are able to catch. Sounds like 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 can cost anywhere from $7.95 a pound to as much as $14 a pound. As you can imagine this gets pricey very quickly for a family dinner!
It wasn't always like this though. If today's lobster wears a top hat and has a British accent, 80 years ago he was wearing overalls and picking up your garbage. Lobster is quite the social climber!
Lobsters were so abundant in the early days - residents in Massachusetts Bay Colony found they washed up on shore in 2-foot-high piles - that people thought of them as trash food! It was food fit only for the poor and served to servants and prisoners.
In 1622, the governor of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford, embarrassingly admitted to newly arrived colonists that the only food they could provide friends and family with was lobster. 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 was an unfamiliar, vaguely disgusting bottom feeding creature that sort of resembled an insect. The word 'lobster' comes from the Old English loppe, which means spider.
People certainly ate lobster back then; they just weren't very happy and open about it.
In the 1940's American customers could buy lobster meat in a can like spam or tuna, and it was fairly low priced. In the 19th century canned lobster sold for just 11 cents a pound - People even fed lobster to their cats!
So how did lobster move up in the world?
Lobster was plentiful, so abundant it was cheap to prepare and good nutritious food to serve to prisoners and servants. Maine was filled with lobster canneries in the 1800s. Back then, factories and canneries were forced to work with smaller lobsters because they were so efficient at processing.
When the railways started to spread throughout America, transportation workers realized that no one knew what lobster was, trains could serve it to passengers as a rare and exotic delicacy, even though it was actually very cheap for those running the railroad to obtain it. Inland passengers who didn't know lobster was considered trash food on the coast started to love it - It became a popular food.
By the 1880's, chefs discovered that lobster was a lot better and looked a lot more appetizing, if they cooked it live than if they killed it first - then cooked it later. Restaurants first started to serve lobster in the 1850s and 60s in the salad section, like bread, pickles or cottage cheese.
Then the shift started to happen. Americans had started to enjoy lobster, even in the cheap salad bar way and demanded more of it. Fisherman began to notice there were fewer lobster, driving the price up.
However, 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.
Lobster prices hit their first peak in the 1920s, when the going rate was about the same as today’s. But with the Depression, the luxury lobster market took a hit. No one could afford the delicious sea creature in restaurants, so it was demoted back to the canneries to provide a cheap source of protein for American military troops.
During WWII, lobster wasn't rationed like other foods, so people of all classes began to eat it enthusiastically.
Then by the 1950s, lobster was firmly established as a delicacy; it was something movie stars ate when they went out to dinner.
Now imagine what could have happened if the train's dining cars had decided to serve liver!