The Great American Lobster

Summer in New York is finally here, which for us on the East Coast means: lobster. Here at ANY we'll take our lobster in almost any form, though drenched in butter is a top choice. In honor of the season we're diving into the history of the lobster, and how it went from a meal served to prisoners to a decadent luxury.

A boy between two mounted lobsters caught off the New Jersey coast, February 1915. Photograph by Walter L. Beasley for National Geographic.

A boy between two mounted lobsters caught off the New Jersey coast, February 1915. Photograph by Walter L. Beasley for National Geographic.

As a food item, the lobster has a long history. Excavations of shell and bones show lobster was eaten by our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors and records also show they were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it wasn't until the New England settlers arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts that the lobster we know- the American Lobster- began its journey to what it is today. Of course, it's worth noting that the Native Americans had been eating lobster for centuries before they were "discovered" by the New England settlers, who probably learned how to cook them by watching Native Americans cover them in seaweed and bake them over hot rocks, the likely origins of the New England clam bake. 

Upon arrival at Plymouth in the seventeenth century, the New England settlers found an abundance of lobsters. So many, in fact, that they would wash up unto the shores in two foot high piles and to add to this abundance, could weigh up to 40 pounds. They were in such excess that in 1622 upon the arrival of new settlers, Plymouth Governor William Bradford apologized that all he had to serve "their friends with was a lobster...without bread or anything else but a cupp [sic] of fair water."

This abundant protein quickly gained a reputation as the poor man's food, and was routinely served to colonial prisoners, apprentices, and slaves. Sadly, there's no primary evidence to support the oft cited tale that prisons had legal stipulations against how often they could feed their prisoners lobster, but it makes for a fantastic story, one that was probably developed as lobsters became more scarce.

Throughout the 1800s lobster was still abundant, and the first commercial lobster canneries started in Maine in the 1840s, when, at the time, a five pound lobster was considered small. Without the ability to keep it cold, it was difficult to transport live lobsters, but canning solved this issue. However it took very little time for canned lobster to catch on, and as lobster became over-fished, they had less time to grow, and it now took five of these smaller one pound lobsters to fill a can, which added time and cost to the factory process. This was a problem for the canning industry, but restauranteurs soon realized these smaller lobsters looked fantastic buttered and garnished sitting on a plate.

As train travel throughout America began to rise and refrigeration and ice packing technology improved, it became easier to transport fresh lobster, and financially savvy to serve them to train passengers and vacationers to New England, who had often never seen them whole and had no idea that they were considered "poor food" by New Englanders. Dressed up with butter and served as something special, the travelers loved it, and soon cities like Chicago and New York were clamoring for lobster shipments to cook at restaurants of their own. By 1885 the lobster industry in the U.S. was processing 130 million pounds of lobster per year, which was a completely unsustainable rate. By 1918 the lobster population had been so decimated that only 33 million pounds could be produced.

From 1889 to 1898 the price of lobster quadrupled and then doubled again between 1904 and 1924 when it reached its peak. Suddenly, with the onset of the great recession, nobody could afford to eat them. This lull in lobster fishing allowed the American Lobster to repopulate, which in turn allowed the canneries to resume their larger-lobster canning activities. In fact, in World War II many soldiers survived in foxholes by eating canned lobster.

The cycle has since repeated itself, with a price peak in the 70s to a gradual stabilizing out into the millennium. Unlike other food industries like dairy and meat, lobster isn't government subsidized and artificially stabilized, meaning that lobster are actually sold at market rate. However, a freakishly warm year from 2011 to 2012 led to an extremely early and abundant lobster season, and lobster sold at the lowest price since 1939.

The market has evened out again in the last two years as the lobster resumed their usual molting schedule, and as of 2015 we're back to the more moderate lobster prices we've seen regularly over the last twenty years. This is very good news for us at Alder New York since a day at the beach doesn't feel complete without that lobster and butter at the end of the day.