Food for poor people and prisoners. Happy Lobsters Day!
Lobsters were once only fed to poor people and prisoners
These days a live lobster will go for easily $5 a pound, according to the Main lobster industry, though they can easily spike 20 percent or more in a single season…
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The lobster also quickly earned a reputation for being a vacuous bottom feeder, willing to put anything—no matter how barely edible—in its craw. People ate so much lobster they got sick of it—though it doesn’t help that they only cooked lobsters dead back then, not alive as we do today.
People got so fed up with lobster meat, in fact, that they stopped eating it altogether. Or at least the respectable members of society did so. Instead, they began feeding it to their livestock—as well as the financially destitute, criminals, and indentured servants—rather than eat it themselves. According to 19th century Kentucky politician and social observer, John Rowan, the meat quickly became synonymous with lower classes of society and quipped “Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.” The meat was so reviled that indentured servants in one Massachusetts town successfully sued their owners to feed it to them three times a week at most. We should all be so unlucky.
The stigma stuck for years. During the Victorian era, you’d spend about 53 cents per pound of Boston baked beans but just 11 cents per pound of lobster. However, some folks were willing to give lobster a shot as far back as the 1850s. Sure, it’d be the lowest priced item on the menu—roughly half of what you’d pay for even chicken—and nobody would be caught dead eating one but it was available. The lobster was something you’d feed to your cat, not your dinner guests.
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It was actually the rise of seasonal tourism in the 1870s—wherein the well-to-do from New York and Washington would retreat to Boston from the region’s oppressive heat and humidity that lobster began becoming a sought-after item. Visitors, upon returning home from their vacations, would find themselves still craving Boston baked beans and boiled lobster. And, more importantly, willing to pay handsomely to get more.
This led to the popularization of canned lobster which had recently been invented in 1841. This process, which required an assembly line of boilers, shellers, and other industrial mechanizations as well as an army of workers to man them—helped jumpstart the Maine fishing industry and grow it into the monumental economic and aquacultural powerhouse that it is today.