The Story of Maine Lobster, From Prison Food to Delicacy

Photo of Christopher Crosby
5 February 2018

The traffic into Damariscotta, Maine starts about a mile from the the popular coastal town and, as much as you think it might be caused by flocks of summer tourists or a (notoriously poor) traffic pattern, it’s caused in large part to something altogether different: lobster.

A lobster shack, to be more precise. Reds Eats, “The World’s Best Lobster Shack,” has called a corner of this town home for nearly 80 years, and in that time its fame for lobster rolls has spread far and wide. But lobster didn’t always enjoy the reputation as a delicacy. In fact, it’s largely thanks to Maine—the largest lobster-producing state in the nation—that this crustacean has any culinary legs to stand on at all.

Lobster | © Allagash Brewing Company/Flickr

The unlikely history of the lobster’s rise from repulsion to a red-hot treat begins before the colonists. Native American tribes along the Atlantic ground lobsters into fertilizer and bait for fishing. They also cooked them, wrapping the lobster in seaweed and steaming them over red-hot rocks stacked on the beach—giving birth, the story goes, to the New England clambake.

Without the pressure of commercial fishing, lobsters were plentiful, littering the beaches after storms in piles taller than toddlers. In 1605 the first lobster catch was recorded and, at the time, when European settlers founded what was then Massachusetts Bay Colony, those kinds of numbers brought a negative stigma. Considered poor man’s protein, lobsters were gathered by hand in droves and eaten by the poor in baked dishes, fricassees, and tough, chewy stews—altogether different than how they’re consumed today.

As noted in the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, in 1622 Plymouth Plantation governor William Bradford found himself apologizing to newly-arrived settlers when he “could presente their friends with was a lobster…without bread or anything else but a cupp of fair water.”

Lobster | © NadineDoerle / Pixabay

Lobsters at the time were monsters, easily growing to 40 pounds or more. They were fed to prisoners, as they were the cheapest source of calories that could be found, although progressive authorities from the era tried to reign in the practice. Some servants in Massachusetts even included clauses in their contracts limiting their employers from feeding them lobster more than twice a week.

Urbanization and the growth of cities—particularly New York and Boston, where Maine’s catches could be easily shipped—helped the lobster shed its reputation, molting into a must-have dish of the rich by the late 19th century.

Maine played a huge role in this change. The first lobster pound was opened in Vinalhaven, a small fishing community, and coincided with the rise of commercial fisheries in Maine. From there, the rest of the country learned to revere the “Maine lobster.”

By 1842 lobster hit Chicago, and all-lobster restaurants cropped up in cities, leading the lobster industry in America to ship 15 million pounds of the stuff by 1885, as lobstering as a trap industry became prevalent in Maine. As catches diminished stock, the price of lobster increased and it became more valuable in the eyes of the elite. Coupled with the development of a custom boat, known as a well smack, lobsters could be kept alive during transport, and Maine fisheries were able to deliver fresh catches of their lobsters all around the world.

Lobster Roll | © Yuri Long/Flickr

Canning pushed its distribution, and by the 1880s canned Maine lobster arrived in California. Railroads made it easier to deliver fresh lobsters, and in the 1950s air shipments of the crustaceans could leave Maine one day and arrive on the West Coast the next. Demand from gourmands nationwide were met.

By the 1950s, Maine was tributing some 20 million pounds of lobster every year—a number dwarfed by 2014’s 130 million pounds.

Nowadays, individual consumers can even order fresh lobsters from the traps to their home—for a price. A 1.5 pound lobster from Maine will set the average New Yorker back $56.

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