How lobster went from prison trash food to delicacy

Matt Hershberger

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Consider this: the night before convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in Utah, he ordered his final meal. He wanted lobster tail, steak, apple pie and vanilla ice cream. Murderer Allen Lee Davis ordered a lobster tail, a half pound of deep fried shrimp, fried potatoes, fried clams, garlic bread and root beer.

Lobster, it turns out, is one of the most common last-meal requests among death row prisoners – which is strange when you consider an old story from Maine: in the early days of the colonies, jailers were forced to limit the amount of lobster they could feed their prisoners. The prisoners, it seemed, thought the constant lobster dinners constituted "cruel and unusual" punishment. The story is probably apocryphal, but we do know that early settlers in New England considered lobster to be trash food.

So why the change? Why did the prisoners of the 17th century despise lobster when the murderers of the 21st century seem to want its taste to be lingering on their tongue as the life leaves their bodies?

How lobster became trash food

Photo courtesy of Photo via Flickr/Jan Beckendorf

There's evidence that some lobster species were being eaten in Europe long before anyone sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas. But for anyone who didn't live by the seashore, lobster and other shellfish had an unreliable reputation. When a lobster dies, its stomach enzymes seep out into the rest of its body, which makes the meat go bad quickly. This is why lobster is usually cooked alive – if a lobster is dead, it has probably already started rotting, and it can make you sick. According to Elisabeth Townsend, author of Lobster: A Global History, the presence of spoiled seafood in British fish markets is why the word "fishy" has become synonymous with "suspicious."

When the British settlers first came to New England, they quickly learned that the local Algonquins depended heavily on lobster as a source of protein. After storms, lobster would wash up on shore by the hundreds, and, if you were quick, you could pick them up, cook them, and eat them before they had the chance to spoil. The first few years for the settlers were notoriously difficult, and the abundance of lobster probably became the crustacean's undoing in the settlers’ eyes. They would have eaten lobster almost constantly, and the smell of thousands of dead lobsters on a beach could have understandably put them off the food entirely.

So as time went on, lobster was identified as a subsistence food, something only to be eaten out of desperation. The people who still ate it were poor or lower class, and it was otherwise used as livestock feed and fertilizer.

We, as humans, can eat a lot of what's around us, but most cultures don't eat all of the things that are available to them. The roots for this go pretty far back – studies have found that some non-human mammals have "superior" and "inferior" food sources, and that "dominant individuals may force weaker ones to accept less sought-after food items."

In humans, the same dynamic can play out. Some foods are luxurious, eaten only by the rich (caviar, filet mignon, lobster circa 2017), while others are mostly eaten by the poor (instant ramen noodles, a Dickensian bowl of gruel, lobster circa 1717). The "poor" food becomes stigmatized, and that stigma eventually morphs into a full-fledged taboo.

How did lobster become a symbol of luxury?

Photo courtesy of Photo via Getty Images/Torresigner

Lobsters switched from taboo to delicacy for a few reasons. The first reason was the Civil War. In the 1860s, canning became a viable way to get food rations to thousands of soldiers at a time. And it turned out, once lobster was cooked, it was pretty easy to can. So in the mid-1800s, people as far away as California were able to buy and eat Maine lobster for the first time. As David Foster Wallace put it, it was "in demand only because it was cheap and high in protein, basically chewable fuel."

The second reason for the change was the rise of railroads and, consequently, the rise of tourism. People who had long eaten canned lobster, and who were not aware of the food's low-class status in its place of origin, would take a trip to New England, try fresh lobster for the first time, and lose their minds over how delicious it was. As a result, demand for fresh lobster in other cities around the country rose, and because lobster must be shipped live, it ended up costing more to serve it. By the early 1900s, it was associated with Gilded Age decadence, thanks to people like millionaire caricature Diamond Jim Brady, who would reportedly eat six or seven lobsters at a sitting. Thus, in a span of maybe 50 years, a trash food became a delicacy.

But in recent decades, there have been signs that the fate of the lobster may be moving back in the other direction thanks to a newer consideration: animal rights. In his famous essay "Consider the Lobster," writer David Foster Wallace pointedly asked: "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" Many animal rights activists have decided that the answer is "no," and have made moves to classify the live boiling of lobsters as inhumane. Some places have already outlawed the practice.

Whether these social forces alone have the strength to turn lobster-eating back into a taboo is questionable, but coupled with the forces of climate change, overfishing, and economic hardship, it's at least a possibility. 

*This article was originally published in December 2017. 

Matt Hershberger

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