I have a confession. I don’t like lobster. I don’t like the taste, or the texture. I love the lowly shrimp much better than the lobster. Is this because I grew up on the seafood of the gulf states where shrimp is more abundant and better appreciated? If I had grown up in Maine or New England, would I love lobster? And, why should shrimp not be as fancy as lobster? Well, it could be supply. Lobster is very expensive. When we pay more for something, it does have something to do with how much we like it. However, lobster wasn’t always fancy. It used to be viewed as the big bottom-feeding bug-like nasty thing it looks like. It was, to be frank, food for animals, prisoners, and the poor and desperate. Not fit for fancy folks. It was sometimes used merely as fertilizer.
That’s right, lobster used to be the lowest of the low. People not from the south talk about catfish with disdain. Saying it tastes dirty. Saying it is a bottom feeder. Well, that is how lobster tastes to me, and that is how people used to speak of it in this country. But there is one fundamental difference between catfish and lobster except for the fact that today catfish is plentiful, lobster is, relatively speaking, not. You could argue that lobster is a more delicate, succulent food, but I defy you to produce anything more than a subjective argument. Love of food is, after all, subjective.
Supply was not always an issue for lobster, though! Lobster used to be as plentiful as cockroaches. In fact, it was often called the cockroach of the sea. You didn’t even need lobster traps and big boats. You could catch them by hand, for an easy, but poor, meal when nothing else was available. Somehow, though, lobster got fancy.
Lobster worked its way up in society. Demand among wealthy diners in coastal cities increased and this demand caused people to come up with more efficient ways to catch them. Before long, lobster was a big international business, ending up on plates far removed from the coastal areas. Amazingly, there were enough regulations put into place early enough to keep the lobster from become over-fished to the point of extinction, something that is still in delicate balance, despite sometimes record catches.
Still, the reputation of lobster has been both high and low throughout history. There is plenty of evidence that the early Egyptians found them fascinating. Folks in ancient Pompeii, if you go by mosaic floor art, thought the spiny lobster was darned good eating. Yet, the early settlers to the New England states thought then nothing more than trash, and these were not the spiny lobster, but the good kind, like you get from Maine. Real lobster!
Yet, as early as 1873, around eight thousand tons of lobsters were used in Maine alone, according to William Willder Wheildon in his book The American Lobster: Natural History and Habits, published 1875. Although it is hard to know if Wheildon’s 1873 estimate is accurate, official record keeping began in Maine in 1880, at which time 14,535,102 pounds of lobster were reported to have been caught. That’s 7267.5 tons. Before you start imagining an early version of Red Lobster, though, realize that the majority of the lobster were canned.
Canned lobster may seem almost sacrilegious to a lobster connoisseur, but without refrigeration and quick transport, what else were they supposed to do, if there was to be any sort of lobster industry? Even with canning, it was already necessary to begin establishing fishing regulations. Fresh lobster, in contrast, was served near the coast, if not right on the docks, where lobster shacks sprang up serving fresh lobster to folks who would line up on long picnic style tables. Canned lobster, although you may not come across it in your area, is still available from both Maine, Canada, and other areas.
One thing to keep in mind about all food industry, is that if it IS an industry, that is because someone had the foresight to imagine it as one. Industries don’t pop up by magic.
You can read more about the history of the Maine Lobster industry in The Maine Lobster Industry: A History of Culture, Conservation & Commerce by Cathy Billings. For a more general and global perspective on lobster history, see Lobster: A Global History by Elisabeth Townsend.
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