Alcott · Little Women

Tidbit of History: Lobster — From Embarrassing to Elegant

Welcome to Tidbit of History, where we talk food facts we learned while researching our Little Women Cookbook! Today’s topic: lobster.

If you read Little Women, did you ever think, “They sure eat a lot of lobster for a family who says they’re poor…”

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And Amy seems weirdly embarrassed when a crush catches her with a giant lobster in a shopping basket, and not in a “he’s going to think I’m a financially irresponsible food snob” kind of way.

Amy Lobster.png

Luckily, I found an entire book about the history of lobster, which explained everything. (As a librarian, I find great joy in the fact that there are entire books written on pretty much any niche interest you could have.) My friends, gather ’round — here is the story of the American lobster.

Once upon a time, there were lobsters aplenty in the land … and no one wanted them. (Same for oysters too!) The American lobster, with the big ol’ meat mitts, now sets the standard for lobster around the world, but Americans waited even longer than Europeans to accept lobster as haute cuisine.

American lobsters live in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, from Labrador (in Northern Canada) to North Carolina. According to fossils, lobsters have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and humans were eating them as early as 100,000 years ago.

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It appears to be possible.

Native Americans had lobster in clambakes long before the arrival of Europeans. When the British arrived, they didn’t think much of lobster and only ate it to survive. It was used as food for indentured servants and slaves, as well as for pig feed, fertilizer, and bait. There’s even a popular (but untrue) myth that they had to write a law to protect prisoners and servants from having to eat lobster more than three times a week. In the 18th century, people were still embarrassed to be seen eating it.

In the 1800s, though, Victorian America was finally starting to want lobster. Here’s why:

  • There were lots of advances in transportation and food storage (like canning!), so people could eat it even if they lived far from the coast.
  • The fishing industry got a whole lot better at trapping lobster.
  • In the 1830s, rich tourists began traveling to Maine to escape the summer heat, and by the 1880s, trips to the seaside were a super-popular trend. The visitors experienced the delight of lobster boils, and they understandably started wanting lobster again when they got back home.

As fancy folk started hankering after lobster, chefs came up with new ways to serve it. Lobster forcemeat and potted lobster were out; salads, chowders, and casseroles were in.

  • In 1851, lobster salad was on the menu at the Revere House in Boston, which counted royalty and presidents among its guests.
  • In 1876, Delmenico’s, a restaurant dubbed “a true palace of haute cuisine,” invented the Lobster à la Newburg. It became the most popular lobster dish at Coney Island’s resort hotels, which went through 3,500 lbs of lobster every day. (And Lobster à la Newburg now has a national holiday.)
  • By 1896, the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook was declaring that lobsters “belong to the highest order of crustaceans.”

So there you have it. Little Women takes place in the 1860s, at lobster’s very turning point when it was slowly becoming accepted as a fancy food. It was still cheap enough in New England for the genteelly-impoverished Marches to serve it, but trendy enough that Amy would feel okay offering it to her wealthy friends.

More fun/horrifying lobster facts:

  • In mid-18th century America, a live 3-lb lobster cost you 3 cents at the market.
  • Lobsters are nocturnal.
  • Lobsters are solitary, aggressive animals. They sometimes eat their partners after sex. Yikes.
  • Lobsters can grow to 45+ pounds and can be 5-6 feet long. Huge lobsters like these were actually pretty common before the 19th century. The idea of a lobster that giant, crouching on the sea floor as I swim around above, gives me serious heebie-jeebies. (Especially since they seem to be pretty violent — see bullet above.) I wonder if they still taste as good if they’re that big?
  • Also, they can live 50-100+ years!
Lobster A Global History
If you’d like 140 pages of more detail, check out this book!

Townsend, Elisabeth. Lobster : A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, Limited, 2011.

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