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How the Lobster Clawed its Way Up

A crustacean's climb from pauper's fare to modern-day delicacy

Lobster, a quasi-delicacy that in our times sells for up to $50 per crustacean, was once, strange to say, considered a pauper’s food. In colonial North America, it was most commonly found in the dinner troughs of pigs, cows, and goats, its shells ground up and scattered over the rest of the farm as manure. William Wood, a British historian visiting Canada’s Newfoundland in the early 17th century said dismissively of local lobsters: “Their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten [except by the Indians who] get many of them every day for to baite their hooks withal and to eat when they can get no bass.”

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Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that people were downright ashamed to eat lobster. “Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation,” wrote American observer John Rowan in the mid-19th century. Peddlers in Portland, Maine carried lobsters around in wheelbarrows, selling them on the street to working class Irish immigrants. In one Massachusetts town, a group of indentured servants became so upset at their lobster-heavy diet that they took their masters to court and won a judgment protecting them from having to eat it more than three times a week.

It was the abundance of lobster that made it boring, a function of its overwhelming numbers off the Atlantic shores of Canada and New England and the ease with which they were caught. Children could drag a fishhook tied to a stick along coastal waters—a far cry from today’s deep-water traps—and bring a bucketful home for dinner. Some contemporary Canadians remember kids from poor towns, as late as the 1940s, trading lobster sandwiches for peanut butter and jelly in the school cafeteria.

Historians collect lobster accounts from colonial-era books, news clippings, and government documents. But today an unconventional historian is adding another source to the ranks. Rather than study scientific research, oceanographer Glenn Jones pores over restaurant menus, many of them hundreds of years old.

For the last five years, Jones and his team of researchers at Texas A&M University have been piecing together decades of data on everything from clams casino to boiled salmon to trace the shape of fisheries history. “Data on landings and prices only go back to the 1950s,” says Jones. “The information from the menus allows us to bootstrap almost 100 years back in time.” Jones has examined over 200,000 menus, never before perused for their historical import, at public libraries across the country.

The results of the study, which will be released officially later this year, illuminate much more than fish populations; socio-economic patterns, cultural eating habits, and geographic cravings are all revealed.

Lobster first appeared on menus in the 1850s and 60s, as a bargain dish in the salad section–the going rate was half that of chicken salad. It got its first big break commercially with the introduction of the cannery. In Maine in 1841, America’s first canning factory hopefuls hired a Scottish canner to set up an assembly line of boilers, claw breakers, tail pickers, and shell sweepers. At first the canners had difficulty convincing fishermen to catch lobsters and an even harder time persuading shop owners to buy the canned goods. Little by little, more canneries sprouted up along the Maine coast and by 1870 1,200 lobstermen were providing 23 canneries with enough lobster to put out two million cans of the crustacean per year.

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