When the first ships arrived at Plymouth, most shellfish was not considered fit for human consumption, due in no small part to its resemblance to an insect as it crawled along the ocean bottom. Most early passengers during the 1600s were from England and other U.K. countries and accustomed to eating beef, mutton and fowl. What they did consume from the ocean was usually fish, in the form of cod, haddock and sole. Abundant lobster was fed to servants and domestic animals (there must have been a lot of happy cats). Native Americans used it for fertilizer. Just picture thousands of these spiny creatures as they were washed up on the shores of the Cape, where anyone could fill a bucket for free. (Are you drooling yet?)
Even though canneries began to pop up along the Eastern Seaboard two centuries later, lobster was not a desirable item on the dinner menu, but regarded as a cheap and nutritious protein for the poor and for prisoners, much like canned tuna was on the West Coast. You can be sure that foodie Thomas Jefferson never allowed the lowly lobster to darken the door of his kitchen. Keep in mind that Americans were still clinging to their native British diet, which was primarily meat-based. Shellfish were foreign to them and not widely eaten in any form.
Slowly lobster became more accepted, especially with railroad travel during the 19th century, when passengers moving cross country were unfamiliar with the succulent white meat and could be fed for pennies in the dining cars. And as wealthy vacationers flocked to Cape Code each summer, lobster was discovered and embraced, creating a surge in popularity and in price.
During the 1920s lobster prices really began to soar, only to plummet during the Great Depression when few could afford it. Due to no shortage, lobster was not rationed during WWII and thus became a delicacy among the more affluent. Shortly thereafter, fine restaurants featured it on their menus, and cookbooks praised its savory possibilities. By the 1950s, lobster had firmly positioned itself as a luxury food, just below caviar, and prices responded accordingly.There are many different species of lobster, from the prized Maine lobster, which commands the highest prices, to the smaller lobster of Mexico called langostino. Americans value the highly prized Maine lobster tail with drawn butter above all else.
Currently, business is booming. Last year, New England fishermen unloaded more than 130 million pounds, which adds up to approximately 534 million dollars. (Think of the butter required.) And that’s just U.S. figures. Our Canadian neighbors to the north also enjoy a prosperous lobster business, with much of their bounty exported to Asia. Current prices for the Maine variety, which are considered more desirable than Canadian cousins, hover around 9 to 11 dollars per pound at wholesale. Langostino lobster, which is common in the Southwest and Mexico, is not really lobster at all but another species of crab. It is sold by some fast food restaurants, featured at food stands and eateries south of the border and costs considerably less than American lobster.
So there you have it. A real rags to riches saga. Lobster thermidor, lobster mac and cheese, lobster rolls, lobster salad, New England clam bakes, bisque and just plain old outrageously delicious Maine lobster. Pity anyone allergic to shellfish, because lobster ranks right up there on the taste scale, and lobster fans pay dearly for their favorite food. Clearly, there is no end in sight.