“I’ll have the lobster.”
This bold order usually earns ooohs and aaahs from around the table as your fellow diner’s nod in admiration with a slightly furrowed brow and smiling pursed lips. You know that look. The one that’s meant to say “oh man, nice choice!” even though the internal dialogue is probably more along the lines of “well lah -di- dah…..”
A lobster feast can easily set you back $30-$45, sometimes more (or maybe less if Red Lobster is your idea of a fancy meal out.) The high price hinges on several factors. To start, lobster farming is expensive in of itself because the crustaceans are slow to grow and eat a lot. Wild caught is a fantastic option, but only if you live near the source. Trucking around live lobsters requires advanced equipment to ensure they survive the journey, and the fact that many don’t make it to the other side raises the value of those that did. Not to mention, this process means the lobster passes though many hands from the catcher, to the dealer, to the seller, to the buyers, then finally to the consumer who may or may not be wearing a lobster eating bib. Each step racks up a few more dollar signs as everyone takes a cut.
You’re probably wondering, “why don’t they just kill them first?”
If you don’t kill the lobster immediately before consumption, it loses its flavor and takes on a gummy texture. And, more importantly, waiting reduces the risk of a food born illness. Vibrio bacteria lie in the flesh of lobster and other shellfish, and once the creature dies, the Vibrio is free to run wild. Boiling the lobster alive means you can eat the tasty meat before the bacteria can.
These challenges of harvesting lobsters and keeping them alive until they get dunked in a boiling bot of water is reflected in the price. However, you may be surprised to learn that lobster hasn’t always been a luxurious meal. In fact, a lobster dinner used to be reserved for the dregs of society and was perceived to be more fit to be a fertilizer than food source, making this revered crustacean’s journey the ultimate tale of the American dream.
The Rags Phase….
When Europeans first came to North America, they found lobsters piled up nearly 2 feet high on the shore line. These bottom feeders looked rather repulsive, and quickly became the ultimate poor man’s protein. A lunch of lobster was nothing short of embarrassing, and a trashcan full of shells was a symbol of poverty and despair. The heaps of crawling crustaceans were more of a nuisance than a feast, but a source of nutrition nonetheless, making them the perfect food for prisoners, slaves, and servants through the 18th century.
Riding the Railroad to Riches…..
By the mid 19th century, lobster began it’s climb up the social latter with the development of canneries and railroads. Newly built canneries took the excess lobster and created a lobster spam of sorts, and the train lines marketed it as a delicacy of kings, not paupers. Midwest riders were oblivious to the negative status symbol and adored the buttery taste, resulting in a boost in demand.
More demand meant more lobsters needed to be caught, true to the quintessential economic theory of supply and demand. But at the start of the 20th century, there weren’t rules and regulations for lobster farming, and greedy fisherman would grab the large lobsters while leaving the small ones behind.
Further climbing the socioeconomic ladder….
As demands rise and supplies fall, the curves can be balanced out with a price increase (isn’t economics great?!) This rise in price in turn gave the lobster a socioeconomic boost, and our crustacean pauper started trading in working boots for sleek dress shoes. Eating lobster became a status symbol equated with class and wealth, which only furthered the creature’s heroic assent to the top.
Lobster is still a classy upper-class food, and it’s tale from rags to riches makes the lobster a star example of achieving the American dream.
Given the heroic story, I can’t help but wish I like lobster more…..