Maine lobster was once the diet of the poor and imprisoned: Lobster’s Humble History

As our Maine lobstermen gear up to rake in well over a half a billion dollars of lobster this year, it is noteworthy to acknowledge the humble history of our state’s most prized sea insect.

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Let it be noted, I have several friends from out-of-state who turn their noses up at the thought of pulling apart the carcass of a bottom feeder—it is kind of a savage act. Yet, it is something that we as Mainer’s are so desensitized to, and we are not alone. For us, the enjoyment of eating lobster is not found solely in the meat but in the tedious tradition of breaking down the shell and harvesting the crustaceous gold that lies inside, mysteriously hard to reach.

I guess we are all suckers for an adventure, right? Or maybe it’s just the human psyche at work: the harder it is to get, the more intrigued we are.

Whichever way you choose to understand such a savage ritual, eating lobster is undoubtedly a prominent token of Maine tradition and Maine culture. Tourists flock to Maine from across the globe to indulge in this homegrown commodity, and they pay exorbitant amounts of money to do so.

But hold up. It wasn’t always this way. And here is where things get interesting…

Before Maine lobster was “a thing,” it was a “not-thing.” In fact, it was a “ugh-are-you-kidding-me-I-have-to-eat-this-again?” thing. During the early days of New England settlement, lobster was so plentiful that it is reported to have flooded the shores of our coastlines in two-foot-tall drifts. Back in these days (we’re talking 17th Century), Native Americans were noted to have used lobster as bait and fertilizer and would only resort to eating it when there was nothing else available.

Early settlers in the Colonial era followed suit. They ate lobster but they didn’t exactly enjoy it. The enjoyment was diluted by the sheer volume of it. Lobster quickly devolved into a lower-class meal, and if you were worth anything you wouldn’t touch it. As one 19th century politician by the name of John Rowan wrote, “Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.” Lobster became routinely fed to livestock, the poor, slaves, prisoners and to indentured servants. The well-off found more use out of it as fertilizer and bait than food.

Back in this era, it was common for settlers coming to America to trade seven years of service to those who sponsored their trips. In an act of rebellion, a group of these indentured servants from Massachusetts were allegedly so sick of lobster that they stipulated in their contracts that they would only tolerate being fed lobster a maximum of two-to-three times per week. The thought of more was unbearable, apparently.

Perhaps it is folklore, but there is also buzz that prisoners once rioted in protest of being fed lobster too frequently.

Clearly, the people did not see what we see in Maine’s most luxurious protein.

By the mid-to-late 1800’s, lobster slowly began to make a comeback among diners in New York City and Boston. Lobster was still inexpensive, about $.11 a pound, costing less than a quarter of the price of baked beans and less than most other proteins, but certain brave diners were starting to develop a new taste for the shellfish. As the Industrial Revolution got underway and along with it the advent of the railway system, a means for transporting local, Northeastern foods inland was created. People across America could now dine on lobster, and it slowly ascended to its current position of power on the food chain. As the 20th century rolled in, a delicacy was being born.

Nowadays, the Maine lobster is living the good life. It is rich and has very high self-worth. It does not require a brand manager or a marketing strategy. It speaks for itself. People love it. It is a delicacy. It is one of the few things that puts Maine on the map. From Shark Tank to MasterChef, Maine makes its way into the national dialogue thanks to our friend, The Lobster.

The only question I am left with: what could this mean for you, SPAM?

Bethany Mathieu

About Bethany Mathieu

Hey, y'all! I’m coming at you from the highly wooded, very snowy, central Maine town of Benton and I am here to take you on a food journey of epic proportions.