Friday, September 25, 2009

Live Lobsters: A Short History

By Sherry Shantel

Close your eyes, and picture that large, mouth-watering lobster waiting on your plate for you to crack open and enjoy. You'd be hard-pressed to think of anything that sounds better. However, don't rush out for a live lobster dinner just yet. Wouldn't it be fun to learn a little bit about the critter you're craving before you indulge?

Once upon a time, America was peopled by only Native Americans, and lobsters were plentiful. They were so plentiful, in fact, that the Native Americans used them as fertilizer for farm fields and fish bait. They never ate them! Yuck!

When European settlers started arriving on America's shores, many of them starved to death, but they still wouldn't eat lobster meat. They used it for fertilizer, too, plus they fed it to the people they considered inferior: slaves, indentured servants, the poor, and their own children (children weren't spoiled in those days like they are now!). After word got around that indentured servants were being forced to eat this terrible fare, prospective indentured servants had promises written into their contracts that they wouldn't be made to eat lobster more than three times a week. Imagine that!

Up until the early 19th century, people could get all the lobsters they needed by snagging them from tide pools. They had no need for technological advances in the harvesting of live lobsters. The first lobster traps didn't come on the scene until the 1850s. The reason harvesters needed traps is because they had become able to sell their lobsters to canneries. No one ate the lobsters fresh, and the canned version was so tasteless that few people ate them canned, either.

With the advent of modern transportation, live lobsters became the delicacies they continue to be today. As it became possible to ship live lobsters to America's largest cities, they caught on with the well-to-do, and the rest is just history.

Have you ever felt a little funny about watching a lobster resting quietly in a fish tank only minutes before he appears on your plate? Don't worry. That's been a common feeling since people began eating lobsters years ago. But if you want to experience lobster in its freshest form, this is the way it has to be done.

During my lifetime I've known family members tracing clear back to my great grandmother who was born in 1873. Even when seafood came into vogue, she never ate it. As a Victorian lady, she would never have even wanted to think about throwing something live into a pot of boiling water. After all, women in the Victorian era were sheltered from the harsh realities of life.

It's amazing how tastes change over the years. For centuries the succulent meat of much-maligned lobsters went unnoticed and unappreciated. Then, almost overnight, lobsters moved from obscurity into the fanciest restaurants of the time.

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