Shell Game: Lobster’s Sordid History

Shell Game: Lobster’s Sordid History

By Greg Sewitz on Jan 26, 2015

Lobster is a long con. If your holiday celebrations included an exorbitantly priced lobster tail doused in butter, we hate to break it to you, but you’ve been duped. There’s nothing necessarily luxurious about lobster; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “Cockroach of the sea” used to be its nom de guerre....

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Lobster is a long con. If your holiday celebrations included an exorbitantly priced lobster tail doused in butter, we hate to break it to you, but you’ve been duped. There’s nothing necessarily luxurious about lobster; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “Cockroach of the sea” used to be its nom de guerre.

In the past century, lobster has undergone a rebrand. Pre-1900, it was barely sold at cost. Native Americans, for instance, mainly used it as fertilizer for their far more valuable corn crops—history’s original Surf ’n’ Turf. The Puritans would apologize when they had to serve lobster to guests, even when they were bordering on starvation. Washing up on the rocky shores of the New World like so much driftwood, it was abundant to the point of annoyance.

“Their plenty makes them little esteemed,” wrote William Wood in the 1654 New England’s Prospect, “and seldom eaten.”

One particularly damning rumor is that a group of indentured servants sued to limit their lobster intake to three days a week—and won. The poor bastards just couldn’t stomach it anymore.

Considering its name in Old English was loppestre, a made-up word for a terrifying-to-imagine spider-locust hybrid, it’s a wonder they weren’t looked upon as a sign of Satan, too. Indeed, subsequent years saw “lobster” hurled as an insult: It could mean you were a rascal, a fool, or an invading imperial army wearing red coats. It would be like someone today calling you a “truffle” or “organic coconut oil” if you cut them off in traffic.

It is interesting that lobster has always connoted status—though obviously for most of its history a much different one than the elitism it does today. “Lobster shells about a house,” wrote John J. Rowan, “are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.”

So what drove lobster from low-class to high? For one, the species became less abundant due to overfishing following World War II, and as we all know, the law of supply and demand is very real indeed.

Secondly, there were some who actually enjoyed lobster, and they played a big part in popularizing the protein through increased exposure and good publicity (this is similar to how sushi caught on in the United States, which we wrote about a few weeks ago). François Pierre de la Varenne, author of the founding text for modern French cuisine, was incorporating recipes for lobster in the first edition of Le Cuisinier François as early as 1651.

Most importantly, what the history of lobster reveals is a profound flexibility of taste and trend. If lobster can be both prison slop and a cliché for haute cuisine, then our concepts of what constitutes “good” or “delicious” food is all in our heads. After all, the quality of lobster has not changed much at all. Contrary to most of our intuitions, there is nothing inherent to lobster that makes it decadent, and that’s a very encouraging fact to us at Exo.

For if the “cockroach of the sea” can top off a tasting menu, just imagine the possibilities for crickets.

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