The History of Lobster
EMG Lobster Notes
From an ingredient that was once dismissed as “the cockroach of the sea,” lobster has now become part of what our host, Simon Majumdar, describes as the “lexicon of luxury.” But how did this now prized seafood go from being so disparaged to so sought after? How was it used in historical recipes, and how true is it that servants complained that they were forced to eat it too often?
Find out more about lobster's fascinating history and tune in now.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
The History of Lobster
What would happen if I got run over by a bus?
I don’t know Simon. What would happen if you got run over by a bus?
I’d be a crushed Asian. Crust-acean, see?
Cause we’re going to talk about lobster.
I should do this for a living. Comedy gold.
Simon Majumdar style-y.
Right. Let’s carry on.
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to the latest episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And today, we’re going to look at an ingredient that has risen from being considered almost worthless, dismissed once as “the cockroach of the sea” and used as fertilizer, to one that has become part of what I like to label the “Lexicon of Luxury,” and an ingredient that is now as synonymous with fine dining as truffles and Champagne.
Yes, today on Eat My Globe, we’re going to tell you the history of the lobster.
In 2013, when I was traveling around the United States researching my most recent book, “Fed, White, and Blue” – still available in all good bookshops – I found myself in the small fishing village of Rockland, Maine where I had been invited to join a local lobster fisherman as he went in search of the lobsters that had been caught in the traps he had left in his patch of the ocean. After we docked, we took our catch and decamped to a local restaurant where I was then given a lesson by a local chef in how to make the perfect Maine lobster roll.
It was a unique experience and, once I had seen the hard work involved in bringing this prized seafood to our table, I knew I would always be more appreciative of them whenever I saw them on a restaurant menu or bought live lobsters to cook at home.
However, as we shall see, even though they are now a prized catch, the history of eating lobster, particularly in the United States had very humble beginnings.
So, what is a lobster.
The Latin classification for Lobster is Nephropidae Homarus Americanus and to quote from our good friends at Merriam Webster, it is defined as,
“any of a family (Nephropidae and especially Homarus Americanus) of large edible marine decapod crustaceans that have stalked eyes, a pair of large claws, and a long abdomen and that include species from coasts on both sides of the North Atlantic and from the Cape of Good Hope.”
The word “lobster” itself is derived from a word of Old English, “Loppestre,” which was a corruption of the Latin word “Locusta,” which meant “spider” or locusts. The word recognizes that these sea creatures resembled the insect locusts. The French chose another root for their world for lobster, and that had its origins in the Old Norse word for lobster – “Hummar,” which lead to the modern word that those of you who are familiar with French menus will recognize: “homard.”
As the definition says, lobsters are “decapods,” meaning that they have ten legs including any claws they might have. And they are most usually found in the sea floor. It is, out of interest, this “bottom feeding” part of their nature which means that lobsters are considered not to be kosher.
There are quite a few different species of lobster, but they can be classified under two main categories.
“Clawed Lobster” – These are the lobsters that we most think about and include the American Lobster.
And “Spiny Lobster” – These are recognizable because they do not have claws but have many protruding antennae which make it look like they have spines.
Scientists believe that lobsters have been in existence for several million years. And, many of the different ancient Mediterranean civilizations are believed to have consumed lobsters. Although, finding evidence of lobsters being harvested and eaten is hard to confirm in the pre-historic era, primarily because of the fragility of the shells. There is evidence from a 15th century B.C.E. depiction on a temple wall in Deir El-Bahari, Egypt of a spiny lobster as part of an assemblage of seafood during a trade voyage of Queen Hatshepsut. There is also evidence from a pile of kitchen waste, called “middens,” in the village of Sant’Imbenia in Sardinia, Italy that lobsters were certainly part of the human diet by the 7th century B.C.E. or the early Iron Age.
And, again, although it’s hard to be certain, the presence of early fishing techniques by humanity in areas where lobsters were known to have been present, does indicate that they have been part of the human diet or at least known to humans for many centuries in the Americas, coastal regions of Africa and the Antipodes.
Lobsters were also a prized part of the diet in the classical period. They are mentioned in the works of Classical Greek gourmand, Archestratus, who lived around 350 B.C.E. He wrote a poem known as “Hedypatheia” or “The Life of Luxury.” Although much of this poem is lost, early writers have quoted excerpts from his poem where he refers to lobsters being
“Lobster, well-armed sea creature. Its most noticeable external traits were its ‘long hands and small feet.’”
And, in his 350 B.C.E. work, “The History of Animals,” Greek philosopher, Aristotle, talks about the difference between crawfish and lobster. While Pliny the Elder discusses the exoskeletons of lobsters in Book Nine, Chapter 30 of his mega work “Natural History.”
We can also find the lobster as a recognized motif in Ancient Greek Art and commerce. Images of lobsters appeared on coins. And, one of the most beautiful discoveries of recent years was a vase which is believed to date from around 460 B.C.E., which is shaped in the form of a lobster claw. The vase is thought to be a dispenser for wine used at a “Symposia” or a drinking party. It really is very beautiful, and you can check out the link in our annotated transcript or find it via your favorite search engine. All of which shows that lobsters were familiar enough in Ancient Greece to become a recognized symbol.
In Ancient Rome too, we see lobsters being mentioned, both by naturalists such as Plutarch, who in his collection of essays called, “Moralia,” and a particular essay called “De Sollertia Animalium” mentions the octopus as a predator for lobsters. And also, it’s mentioned by the renowned cook, such as Apicius, in his work “De re Culinaria.” He lists a number of recipes for lobsters including “Broiled Lobster with Cumin Sauce” – which sounds rather lovely – and one he calls “Mince of the Tail Meat” – which sounds slightly less glamorous. Mince of the tail meat.
In both Ancient Greece and Rome, lobsters were fished for extensively and were considered of great commercial value. They were even transported by the Romans over large distances and were considered a food for the wealthy. Emperor Maximinus from the third century was said to have eaten twenty large lobsters in one sitting. And, there are also stories from the age that one of the major speeches by legendary orator Cicero was inspired by a dish of stewed lobster.
Lobsters were also considered to have therapeutic qualities. Their parts were known to be used to treat kidney stones, as laxatives and treatment for the immune system. They were also considered to have strong aphrodisiac powers. Which many people still think of now. So there you go.
And, here’s a plug for another podcast. I am told by my friend Dr. Terry Simpson -- the host of the excellent podcast Culinary Medicine -- do go and subscribe, you’ll enjoy it -- that some parts of the lobsters are still used today to decrease breast cysts and to heal burns.
In the Medieval period, from the 5th century to about the 15th century, people considered lobsters as food in high regard. King Henry VIII of England regularly had dishes of lobsters on his table.
We also begin to see recipes appearing in Medieval cookery books, such as this one from a 15th century manuscript, for “Crabbe or Lopster Boiled,” which instructs
“Take a crabbe or lopster, and stop him in the vent with on hire clees, and seth him in water, and no salt; or elles stoppe him in the same maner, and cast him in an oven and bake him, and serue him forth colde. And his sauce is vinegre.”
Famed London diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived from 1633 to 1703, was particularly fond of lobsters and they would make a regular part of his shopping list and many appearances on his table. He was particularly despondent on the 13th of June 1666 to find out that he had forgotten to take his purchased lobsters out of the taxi coach that brought him home. I’ve left plenty of stuff in taxis so I can appreciate that.
“Thence with mighty content homeward, and in my way at the Stockes did buy a couple of lobsters, and so home to dinner.
Where I find my wife and father had dined, and were going out to Hales’s to sit there, so Balty and I alone to dinner, and in the middle of my grace, praying for a blessing upon (these his good creatures), my mind fell upon my lobsters: upon which I cried, Odd zooks! and Balty looked upon me like a man at a losse what I meant, thinking at first that I meant only that I had said the grace after meat instead of that before meat. But then I cried, what is become of my lobsters? Whereupon he run out of doors to overtake the coach, but could not, so came back again, and mighty merry at dinner to thinke of my surprize.”
Odd zooks, indeed! Perhaps I should use that from now on. Odd zooks!
Lobsters were plentiful in London and could be bought fresh and alive at the markets by folks like Pepys, because the English had followed suit with the Dutch in the use of a new type of fishing vessel known as a “Smack.” These were fishing vessels that had a large tank in their hull that was filled with seawater. The seafood catch was placed in this tank, which would keep the seafood alive so that it could be returned to shore and sold fresh rather than having to be salted or dried.
Lobsters remained a popular part of the British diet through the 18th and 19th centuries, and were even mentioned, with a few recipes such as Lobster a la Mode Francaise, Lobster Curry and Potted Lobsters, in one of the great culinary books of the 19th century – Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management,” which was published in 1861.
As we have seen, in Europe, they tended to be the choice for those of a higher income. And, they could become quite an object of desire as the story of famed Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius shows. He was once said to have spent the equivalent of 500 Euros in one evening on lobster and brandy, – which kind of sounds like my kind of evening. I call that Tuesday.
Anyway, Lobster left a very different impression on those who were the first colonists in the New World.
Lobster was already part of the diet of the indigenous population of the New World. They were cooked by placing the live lobsters over pre-heated rocks and covering them with a layer of wet seaweed.
I’ve actually been fortunate enough to experience this method of cooking when I spent time in 2013 at the Plimoth Plantation living history museum while I researched my most recent book, “Fed, White and Blue.” The meal was prepared for me by members of the Wampanoag community that worked at the museum. And I can tell you that the end result was absolutely delicious and, I was told by my hosts, almost identical to something that the first colonists would have experienced. The lobster shells, which we know now contain a good amount of nitrogen and phosphoric acid, were then used by the native population to fertilize their crops.
This abundance of lobster was not something that went unnoticed by the arriving colonists. In John F. Mariani’s book, “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” he claims that
“When the first Europeans came to America, the lobster was one of the most commonly found crustaceans. They sometimes washed up on the beaches of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in piles two feet high.”
However, this abundance did not necessarily make them popular. In 1622, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation apologized to new arrivals of settlers that the only dish he could present was
“a lobster . . . without bread or anything else but a cupp of fair water.”
And William Wood, who authored a book in the 1630s aimed at potential colonists, noted, in reference to lobsters, that
“Their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten.”
The fact that they were in plentiful supply did mean that they were at least a cheap source of protein and were therefore a good supplement to the diet of the poor. Francis Higginson, who wrote a book called “New England’s Plantation” in 1630, said
“[W]e take [an] abundance of lobsters, and the least boy in the Plantation may both catch and eat what he will of them.”
The abundance of lobster and their use to supplement the diet of the poor did help create one of the great myths in food history -- the notion that lobster became so common in the diet of the lower echelons of society that they began to protest about being forced to eat it so much. I have seen this idea being shared about servants protesting so vehemently that they had a clause put in a contract that it was to be discontinued.
Food historian Sandy Oliver has done considerable work into this and can find no first-hand source to support it ever happening. And, she believes that most of the references, of which there are many, come from sometime in the 1900s at a time when lobster were scarcer and they wanted to show how abundant it had been in previous generations. Indeed, she notes that a similar story line appeared before the 1900s but it was about salmon being
“so plenty [sic] that the first town poor protested against being served with salmon more than twice a week.”
If it’s highly unlikely that anyone was ever fed so much lobster that they rose up in protest, what is certain is that it was -- throughout the early colonial history -- a dish that was rarely seen on the tables of the wealthy and was often referred to as “The cockroach of the sea.”
So, how did this lowly and abundant crustacean find itself transformed from potential food fertilizer to a dish that is now listed alongside Champagne and truffles in what I like to call the lexicon of luxury?
Well, for the first answer to that, we have to turn to a short list of technological advancements that developed in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century.
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The first one to mention is the development of the canning industry in the United States of America. Now, I have talked about this at some length on another episode of the podcast in Season #1’s episode on The History of SPAM. I’m not going to go into too much detail. But, it is definitely worth noting the impact they had on the nascent industry of lobster fishing.
In the 1840s, the relatively new business of canning food stuffs as a form of preservation began to turn its attention to fish and seafood. They had some issues at the beginning with food spoilage, and it used to be said that lobster
“was green in the sea, red in the pot and black in the can.”
Despite these problems, it meant that lobster could be transported and cooked in cans up and down the East Coast and inland as people began to move west and fulfill that long held American perceived right of “Manifest Destiny,” – that is their belief that it was a God given right that they were to occupy the entire land.
Canning of lobster was a huge success and began to have an impact on the industry itself. Originally, the lobster being so plentiful, catching them had been incredibly easy, using spears or even by hand. As demand grew, the New Englanders followed the techniques used back in Europe and began to use the “smacks” we discussed earlier.
As the canning industry grew, it became important not only to catch increasing numbers of lobsters, but also to catch lobsters of the correct size for the canning plants to process efficiently. This meant that as lobsters were being caught earlier in their life cycle, the size of the lobster began to decrease.
When the colonists first arrived it was not unheard of for a lobster of up to 40 pounds to be caught. By the time canning was in full flow, they would look to catch lobsters that were around 4 pounds to 5 pounds in weight.
As canning became increasingly efficient, that size continued to reduce. This meant that a new system of catching lobsters was introduced that used traps that would snare only lobsters of a certain size. There was no government regulation on lobster catching until 1871, which limited the size at which the lobsters could be caught and prohibited the catching of “berried” females, or female lobsters carrying eggs. By the 1880s there were 23 lobster canneries in Maine processing nearly 2 million pounds of meat.
The other vital development for the fine dining-ization – uh, is that a word? It is now -- of lobster came with the development of the vast railroad networks, where steam railroads began around 1830 and led to the opening of the Transcontinental Railroads in 1869.
Not only did these railroads provide a method of transporting canned lobsters to newly inhabited parts of the United States, where it proved popular because of its affordability, but it also proved to be a popular item when served on train cars themselves. The owners offered up this inexpensive ingredient from the East coast as something rare and exotic to their passengers. Passengers soon began to develop a liking for it and began to demand it when they returned to their own homes, increasing the purchase of canned lobster.
The growth of the railroads also gave many more people the opportunity to discover the delights of Maine and New England, where the visitors, including many chefs, began to see the huge quality difference in eating lobster when it had been killed to order and cooked, compared to when it had been cooked and canned.
So we begin to see lobster recipes appearing in books of the day, such as Mrs. Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management” that I talked about earlier, and on the menus of the first wave of American restaurants.
So, it might be a good way to end this episode by looking at the origins of my two favorite lobster dishes of all time.
One of the first lobster dishes to be seen in a US restaurant is one I adore called, “Lobster Newberg.” Now, this dish is a rather rich dish made with lobsters, cream, butter, Madeira and eggs. It really deserves to make a reappearance on modern menus. Delicious.
It is claimed to have been created in 1876 at the famous Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, which itself is notable as the first restaurant in the United States to offer a menu.” The story being that it was originated by a regular diner at the restaurant, a sea captain named Ben Wenberg. Wenberg traveled extensively and on his return, he declared to a Delmonico brother that he had discovered a new way to prepare lobster. Delmonico was so impressed that he added it to the menu saying it would be listed as “Lobster a la Wenberg.” A short while later the two men fell out rather badly. Delmonico tried to expunge the dish from the menu, but it had become too popular and so he changed the name to “Lobster Newburg.”
However, while this rather fancy expression of lobster is a great indication of how the “cockroach of the sea” was able to climb the culinary ladder to become fine dining, for me, nothing in food quite says “New England” like a wonderful Lobster Roll.
Food historians believe that the first lobster roll was created around the 1920s at a restaurant called Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut by owner Harry Perry for his customer, Ted Haley. Perry served it in the style that is now known as the Connecticut style, where the lobster is served hot, in drawn butter, in a hot dog bun.
Despite Perry’s potentially legitimate claim, many Americans believe that the lobster roll originated in Maine. The lobster roll in Maine is a very different style from the one in Connecticut. The lobster is poached and served cold and may have a light coating of mayonnaise. The bun is a New England hot dog bun with slightly larger flat sides and is toasted a little on the inside before the lobster is added. I also like to add a little dill and celery to mine for more texture, although I am not sure people in Maine would approve.
Now, I don’t know about you, but all that talk of lobster’s really made me want to go and make a lobster roll or a Lobster Newburg right now. And, of course I’ll share it with my wife. Because I’m not shellfish.
Sorry about that.
See you next week.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: November 11, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.