Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Is True About Lobster?

A query about the myth of lobster being poor man's food in early New England and rejected by apprentices, lumbermen, prisoners, boarding house occupants etc. etc. arrived in my email in-box. At, there is an article about this topic on the Debunk House page, and a food writer read it and then wrote saying, "I recently read your article about lobster not being a poor man's food in New England. You stated that this is a common misconception … but [I] wanted to offer you this as an example of apparently documented historical mention of the unimportance of lobster, along with a citation as to the source."

He then quoted John Mariani's Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, 1999 edition: "They [lobsters] sometimes washed up on the beaches of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in piles of two feet high. These settlers approached the creatures with less than gustatory enthusiasm, but the lobsters' abundance made them fit for the tables of the poor...In 1622 Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Plantation apologized to a new arrival of settlers that the only dish he "could presente their friends with was a lobster...without bread or anything else but a cupp of fair water."...The taste for lobster developed rapidly in the nineteenth century, and commercial fisheries specializing in the crustacean were begun in Maine in the 1840s…" etc. etc.

The writer wanted to know, "In your opinion, is this mention of Governor Bradford in 1622 a fabrication? Even the American Lobster Institute supports the position that lobsters were once so abundant in New England as to be used a fertilizer and generally viewed as 'poor man's' food." Then the writer said "I'm engaged in publishing a cook book and am hesitant to cite your article given the abundance of contrary evidence."

The questions posed by the Bradford citation and the other miscellaneous information tucked into Mariani's work is an object lesson in how to frame a question. Here is my response:

Mariani is a very weak source. Pitch it out and replace it with the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andy Smith. It is true that Bradford said that about lobsters, and that must be put into the context of a proper, formal 17th century meal containing animal meat, not merely seafood alone. Bradford is saying they had no beef or pork or mutton which, in the days when a gentry meal had on the table several dishes some of which included one or more of those served in a rather whole condition, in a joint, plus bread, and wine or other brewed beverage. It is not a slam against lobster---merely a statement of fact. AND further it needs to be understood in the context of large joints carrying significance and formality while a lobster, even a big one, is, when picked, still in smallish pieces.

Commercial lobster fishery had its origins much earlier than the 19th century. In the 1740s in NYC, for example, there was a regular market for it, with lobsters caught in Long Island sound conveyed into the city and sold live. And lobsters were not used for fertilizer though the empty shells were -- a misconception rising I think because of the amount of lobster refuse from 19th century canneries hauled off by farmers who spread it on their fields where city slickers saw it and concluded that the poor dumb farmers were using the lobsters...

Lobsters were a subsistence food where there was no market but were sometimes too valuable to eat if where was a market, hence the story about it being food for the poor. One has to make the effort to hold these two seemingly conflicting notions in mind at the same time.