poor man's delicacies

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Lobster, The Poor Man’s Meal

Today lobster is perhaps the ultimate symbol of high class cuisine. Typically, common people don’t go into a restaurant and order a lobster like one would order a burger and fries, but back in the day lobster used to be a staple food for the lowest of the low.  In colonial New England during the 17th and 18th centuries lobster was so common the English colonists could easily go down to the shore and bring back basketfulls of lobster.  For many lobster mean’t survival as early New England colonists lived a poor existence that teetered on the edge of disaster.  The Native Americans typically used lobster as fertilizer for their crops, a practice which the Massachusetts Bay Colonists picked up as well.

By the 18th century, lobster had gained a reputation as a food for the lowest of the low.  The only people who ate lobster where those who had no choice in the matter; soldiers, criminals, slaves, indentured servants, and those who could afford to eat nothing better.  It was even quite common for New Englanders to feed their livestock and pets lobster because it was so cheap. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lobster was very popular as a cat food. In the early 18th century indentured servants in Massachusetts rebelled against their masters and took them to court over maltreatment; they were being fed too much lobster.  As a result a law was passed which stipulated that a master could only feed his indentured servants lobster at most 3 times a month.

The lobster’s reputation as a disgusting bottom feeder and poor mans meal began to change after the American Civil War.  It was then that railroad companies began to serve lobster on their passenger trains.  Since only New Englanders knew what lobster was, most Americans traveling the rails had little idea of lobster’s reputation.  To them, it was a yummy and delicious food.  Soon its popularity spread across the country, then all over the world.  Eventually, gourmet chefs were finding new ways to cook and serve the delectable crustacean.  As demand rose, so too did supply, until eventually lobster became scarce compared to earlier times.  In the 19th century, a five or six pound lobster was considered small. Today lobster is often priced 8 or 9 dollars a pound.  

The rise in popularity of lobster caused a scarcity in lobster, which eventually transformed lobster from a poor mans dinner into gourmet cuisine.  In New England, the stigma still stuck as lobster was still cheap, and a survival food throughout the Great Depression and World War II. During World War II, lobster was one of the few foods that was not rationed, so New Englanders of all classes enjoyed it, thus dealing the last blow to lobsters negative reputation.