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How Lobster Got Fancy

• June 07, 2013 • 10:00 AM

A trademark label for canned "deep sea" lobster that was submitted to the Maine Secretary of State in 1891. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

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.

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.”

If the peer behavior around the product changes, so too does our appreciation of it. Lobster might seem to taste better to us because it’s so expensive.

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, 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.”)

Indeed, according to research by France Bellisle for the The European Food Information Council:

Cultural influences lead to the difference in the habitual consumption of certain foods and in traditions of preparation, and in certain cases can lead to restrictions such as exclusion of meat and milk from the diet. Cultural influences are however amenable to change: when moving to a new country individuals often adopt particular food habits of the local culture.

Social influences on food intake refer to the impact that one or more persons have on the eating behavior of others, either direct (buying food) or indirect (learn from peer’s behavior), either conscious (transfer of beliefs) or subconscious. Even when eating alone, food choice is influenced by social factors because attitudes and habits develop through the interaction with others. However, quantifying the social influences on food intake is difficult because the influences that people have on the eating behavior of others are not limited to one type and people are not necessarily aware of the social influences that are exerted on their eating behavior.

Bellisle is using this in the context of encouraging people to make healthier diet choices, but the principle also seems to apply to the popularity of all items. You enjoy it because, well, people around you seem to enjoy it. This means that items can also change contexts. This is what happened to Pabst Blue Ribbon, which went from a working-class Midwestern beer to Brooklyn’s preferred Hipster beverage. It’s also what happened to Marlboro, a poorly selling women’s cigarette (“Mild as May”) before being rebranded to appeal to men. In both cases, nothing about the product itself changed. But if the peer behavior around the product changes, so too does our appreciation of it. Lobster might seem to taste better to us because it’s so expensive.

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. According to a 2006 article in Mother Jones:

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 dive. No one could afford the dish in restaurants, so the lobster was demoted back to the canneries to provide a cheap source of protein for American military troops. Jones marvels, “In 1944, soldiers sat in foxholes in France eating lobster.” Bad times made it easier to get fishermen to abide by conservation laws and the dwindling lobster population was allowed to recover slowly in step with the U.S. economy.

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.”

Not everyone plays along. Dancing With the Stars co-host Brooke Burke once proclaimed: “I’m horrified of lobsters. And shrimp and lobsters are the cockroaches of the ocean.” Orthodox Jews still don’t eat it because it’s supposedly unclean. But the rest of America has overcome these original feelings of revulsion, largely thanks to a few rich people’s love for the item and the thrifty ways of early train chefs.

Just imagine what could have happened if the dining cars had just decided to serve liver or processed ham.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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