From Fertilizer to Fabulous – The Lobster’s Crawl to the Ball


Admit it- we all love the rags to riches cinderella stories. We get those warm fuzzy feelings as we cheer on our heros who, against all odds, make it to the ball. This is very true tale about defying nature, destiny, and stereotypes, though our hero is a bit unconventional. Our protagonist is physically not unlike the scorpion and has teeth in its stomach, yet today makes the guest list for only the fanciest of parties.

This is the story of the Maine Lobster, and how it made its way from the garbage bin to the silver platter.

But, let’s back up, specifically to the land that is now modern day US. East coast Native Americans had a very circular relationship with the land, and wisely used all the resources the land offered. Lobster would wash up on the shore, tending to constantly pile up to two feet high. Native Americans would handpick the abundant crustaceans, which would be used as fertilizer and bait for fishing.

When the early colonists arrived, lobster was still decorating the shoreline, though uncooked it was not yet its characteristic bright red shade. Lobsters are actually many pigments of color, and only when cooked does the candy red take over the other shades. The live blueish-brownish scorpion cousin, covered in seaweed and pinching away on the Atlantic coast, hardly seemed appetizing. Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation, one of the founders of the Plymouth colony, apologized to a new arrival of settlers that the only dish he “could presente their friends with was a lobster…without bread or anyhting else but a cupp of fair water.” Some host, right, only providing lobster? The nerve!

Lobster quickly took on fame as a poor man’s meal, and was an easily available but highly loathed source of protein. It was often known as the ‘cockroach of the ocean.’ Families could send their children to go lobster picking, and after consuming the meat, the shells would be dispersed all over the yard as fertilizer. John J Rowan, in 1876, wrote “lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.”

Aside from the poor, the saltwater creature was commonly used as a prisoner food, and given to slaves and indentured servants. Some savvy servants in Massachusetts, tired of the cruel and unusual disrespect for their taste-buds, actually created contracts that did not allow for more than three weekly lobster meals. Lobster was also given to British POWS during the Revolutionary War. Though, unproven rumors circulate that British POWs actually enjoyed the meal, which only served to discredit their judgement on more than just taxation. Other unconfirmed rumors reveal that British revolutionary soldiers were referred to as ‘lobster backs’- not just for their red uniform, but as a derogatory comparison to the rat of the seas that held such a negative stigma.

The colonists never grew fond of the crustacean, despite it providing nourishment in times of need. Ungrateful, or just succumbing to main stream assumptions?

Well, not necessarily either choice. Lobster served the colonist way was not the lobster we know and pay big bucks for today. For one, it was cooked dead like most over meats, and two, the symphony of lobster with loads of butter was yet to be written.

By the late 1700s, lobsters were starting to be transported live through the water on boats called “smacks.” These boats had tanks that provided holes through which saltwater circulated, a concept that would later be applied in lobster pounds. The canning of lobster started to become popular, and canning companies started to experiment with the meat. Restaurant chefs started trying new methods, and realized that cooking the lobster live gave it a much better flavor. In the 1830s, lobsters canning begun and the cans could be shipped anywhere. While still a poor food in Maine, with many people feeding lobster cans to their cats, the increasing popularity of train travel exposed people to lobster as something brand new.

Train managers started serving the affordable lobster on long distance train rides, and people loved it. Lobsters started appearing on menus in the 1850s and 60s as part of the salad section. The exposure of lobster to people without the negative view of the food, and with the combination of clever marketing, a new cooking method, and let’s not forget the butter, suddenly made the crustacean a desired commodity.

The demand for lobster was growing, and lobster trapping had become popular. The first lobster pound opened in 1876 in Vinalhaven, Maine, and proudly still exists today as a lobster pound. The circulation of the seawater allows lobster to grow in a controlled environment-and picking out lobster from a pound is not unlike shooting fish in a barrel. Dealers essentially control at what point the lobster will be sold, and therefore they can wait for more development, and sell the lobster at its peak.

So delicious was lobster, that when stored in small spaces, their claws have to be tightly bound in order to avoid cannibalism amongst the lobster. They couldn’t even hold themselves back from each other!

However, this rise in popularity caused a downward spike in supply. Marketed as a luxury food, lobster was actually decreasing in supply. In an ironic yet predictable way, the very reason lobster had started as a food-widely available- was now being threatened. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had to start protecting and monitoring the production of lobster. This includes releasing any egg-bearing females, and making sure only mature lobster are harvested. The idea is to eat them after they reproduce, leaving us more lobster descendants.

By the Great Depression, lobster was a dish for the wealthy, and had become too luxurious for consumption in those hard times. Back to the canning process the lobsters went. Eventually, those cans were shipped to American soldiers in World War II. Glen Jones, an oceanographer, said “In 1944, soldiers sat in foxholes in France eating lobster.” Still considered a delicacy, lobster was one of the few foods not rationed during World War II. Again, the protein rich food was useful because it seemed unlimited when canned.

By the time 1950 rolled around, lobster went back up to its luxury status, where it has thus remained. The leap from yard fertilizer to patriotic cans to high class finery took years to develop, but now lobster has come too far to climb back down to its former lowly status. Daniel Luzer of the Pacific Standard, explained it well in his article “How Lobster Got Fancy:”

“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.”

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