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A Brief History of Eating New England Lobster

From low-brow to high class, a look at the east coast's most sought-after crustacean.
Semele Turro
A proud Oxegen ‘09 graduate, she drinks builder’s tea, makes a fierce fry, and in 2011 a regular at the Garrick told her she poured the best pint of Guinness he’d ever had.
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Semele Turro
A proud Oxegen ‘09 graduate, she drinks builder’s tea, makes a fierce fry, and in 2011 a regular at the Garrick told her she poured the best pint of Guinness he’d ever had.

After living in Boston for a couple years it's hard not to have a deep appreciation for those delicious little water scorpions we call lobsters. To say New England is obsessed with the lobster is an understatement. They're a part of the culture - from art to employment, and in a region defined by some of the world's best seafood, lobsters reign supreme.

But that wasn't always the case. In the not too distant past lobster was not the MKT price menu item it is today. Served in soups and stews, broiled and boiled, people have been eating lobster for a long time. There is evidence of lobster being eaten in ancient Egypt and Rome and there are recipes featuring our shellfish friends dating back to the European Middle Ages. Back then the lobster enjoyed a high-class status. It wasn’t until European colonists came to the Americas that lobster's standing took a social nose dive.

One would think that a bunch of people stuck on a boat for months would be happy to see heaps of lobsters ready for the munching when they landed on what is now the shores of Massachusetts, but evidently the ease of access to this source of healthy protein would torpedo the lobster to being a commodity worth less than baked beans. In the 1600s, it was not uncommon for piles of lobster 2ft high to wash up on the coasts of the American Northeast. The indigenous peoples of what is now Cape Cod, the Wampanoag, regularly ate lobster and it was supposedly a featured menu item at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Wampanoag’s style of baking lobster has remained popular through today as the likely precursor to the New England classic, the clambake.

However, only a few short years after the colonization of Massachusetts, the serving of lobster became an embarrassing admittance of a lack of means for colonists. So common was the lobster that it was used as bait and, as William Wood noted in his 1634 survival guide New England Prospects, “plenty makes them little esteemed and seldome [sic] eaten.” Abundant, accessible, and nutritious, lobster quickly became the food of the lower classes.

The advent of canning would initially further support the lobster’s fall from grace. Poor families could buy cans of lobster to have healthy protein yearound. To make canning more efficient lobsters had to be caught smaller, which affected the health of lobster populations. Then the ever expanding mid-1800s railway system gave canneries access beyond the coasts and lobster quickly became an affordable protein option across the nation. Eventually overfishing and demand, with a little help from World War I rationing, made the lobster a suddenly scarce commodity.

The American Middle Class of the 1920s began to demand the nostalgic taste of lobster salad and lobster dinners. Not long thereafter lobster started to reappear in American cookbooks, restaurants, and on the dinner tables of socialites and movie stars - just like that the lobster was back! Around the 1920s was also when the iconic lobster roll made its first appearance. There are largely two types of lobster rolls: served cold as a salad mixed with mayonnaise or served (correctly) hot and buttered. Don’t choose wrong like my husband.

Lobster's history in America has had its ups and downs, but at the end of the day the lobster ended up back on top, synonymous with implied wealth and Bermuda shorts.

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