How lobster went from the 'poor man's protein' to the delicacy we eat today
- Lobster rolls are a popular summertime delicacy, usually served on a toasted bun with a side of coleslaw.
- At Ed's Lobster Bar in New York City, a 4-ounce lobster roll will cost about $34.
- But lobster wasn't always so expensive. During the 1600s, American lobsters were dirt-cheap because they were so plentiful.
- During WWII seafood wasn't rationed, and many discovered lobster as a delicacy.
- Chef Ed explains the logistics behind catching and shipping lobsters that contribute to the high cost of serving them in his restaurant.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: It's no secret that lobsters are pricey. And a standard lobster dinner in a restaurant can set you back $38 or more. Lobsters are considered a gourmet dish today, but there was a time when they were known as the cockroaches of the sea and even served to prisoners. So when did lobsters become such a delicacy? And why are they so expensive? There are a lot of species of lobster, but we're interested in the recognizable, clawed lobsters you might see on the menu: Homarus americanus and Homarus gammarus, better known as American and European lobster. These two species are very similar. The biggest difference is their color. We went to Ed's Lobster Bar in New York City to speak to someone who has a lot of experience buying, preparing, and cooking the crustacean.
Ed McFarland: So, one of the hardest things about working lobster is, truthfully, it's the price range of lobster, and it fluctuates greatly and from year to year, and the price increases. And the yield when you clean a lobster is very low. So you could buy a pound-and-a-half lobster, I think this is what most people don't understand, is in a pound-and-a-half lobster, there's probably only 4 ounces of meat out of a hard-shell lobster. So there's not much yield that comes out of the lobster. So when you're cleaning the lobster yourself to make lobster rolls, it really turns into a very, very expensive product.Narrator: To fully understand what makes lobster so expensive, we need to take a look at its history, because it wasn't always as revered as it is now. Lobster's history varies across the world, but, for a long time, it was a source of food for many of the poorest in society.
During the Viking era, lobsters as food became much more popular in northern Europe as boats more suited to deep-sea fishing became available. And by establishing meat-free days for certain religious holidays, the church also increased the demand for seafood, including lobster.
Across Europe, lobsters became associated with status and a lavish lifestyle. And they were often featured in paintings to show wealth. But the value of lobster remained low in North America. Native Americans used lobsters as fishing bait and crop fertilizer, a practice that European colonists later copied.
During the 1600s, American lobsters were dirt-cheap because they were so plentiful. Lobster became known as the "poor man's protein" among European settlers, and the shellfish was often served to imprisoned and enslaved people. That reputation in the US didn't turn around until the advent of railway transportation in the mid-1800s. Lobster started to be served on trains across the country, and passengers soon became fans of the exotic-seeming dish. For a better taste, chefs began cooking lobster alive, which they still do today.
Unlike many other foods, lobster wasn't rationed in the United States during World War II, and the lack of other meat options led many more people to discover this delicacy. The shellfish's surging popularity reduced the stocks of lobsters and drove up the price, and lobster became a gourmet dish often associated with living the high life.
Even when the supply of these crustaceans is high, the price doesn't drop, due to the logistics involved. Successfully catching lobsters is no easy task. They're caught using traps, which have to all be baited and dropped to the ocean floor. Even if the traps are full when the lobstermen return, they might have to throw a lot back due to regulations. The crustaceans are put back if they're too big, too small, or if they're female lobsters carrying eggs. The ones that make the cut have their claws bound and are placed on ice before being taken back to shore. They're then kept in saltwater tanks and shipped live. They need to be kept cool and moist, as well as get enough oxygen to survive the journey, all of which increases the cost to distribute them.A commercial lobster farm could help reduce costs, but it's very difficult to successfully farm American or European lobsters. Out of 50,000 eggs, only two lobsters typically survive to reach a legal size. And if the lobsters don't get enough food, they become cannibalistic. They're also highly susceptible to contagious diseases, particularly in confined spaces.
On top of all that, they grow very slowly. It takes around seven years for a lobster to mature to the required harvesting size. Regardless, lobster catches have been increasing since 1980. And wild-lobster populations have been holding steady, possibly thanks to global warming. Climate change has led to warmer waters, and therefore longer life cycles and higher fertility for lobsters. Even when there's plenty of lobster to go around, it's still expensive. In 2017, the price of Maine lobster increased because of the high demand for lobster rolls, despite a record catch the year before.
McFarland: The wholesale price for lobster can fluctuate anywhere from $8 to $10, depending on the season, per pound. So right now, market price at Ed's Lobster Bar, we charge $38 for a pound-and-a-half lobster. And our lobster roll is $34 for a 4-ounce lobster roll. And if we all stop and move out of the way, the lobster delivery is gonna come in.
Narrator: Ed's Lobster Bar gets daily shipments of 150 to 200 pounds of fresh Maine lobster.
McFarland: All of our lobster shipments are for a day or day and half, max. Nothing ever sits in the restaurant over two days. So the reason why you want to cook lobsters live is, number one, because a dead lobster is not gonna be good. When the lobster is dead, the meat is gonna turn to mush, it's gonna smell bad, and you really can't eat it. It kind of disintegrates inside the shell. And if you actually served or ate that, you're definitely gonna get sick. So you always want to make sure the lobster is alive and kicking before you cook it.
Narrator: Lobsters have become a favorite summertime treat. On a busy night, Ed's will sell 150 lobster rolls.
McFarland: You know, summer is definitely the season for lobster rolls. It's when it's everybody's thought process here in New York City. Everybody's coming in the summer. They can't get down to the beach 'cause they wanna get their lobster-roll fix.
Narrator: People just can't seem to get enough lobster. But a shortage in the US may be coming soon. Lobster fishers use herring as bait, and there's about to be a lot less of them. Because of concerns about overfishing, the New England Fishery Management Council last year voted to limit fishers to about 46 million pounds of herring this year. In 2014, fishers caught 200 million pounds of herring. With so much less available to buy, the price of herring will likely rise, which would, in turn, make lobster even more expensive. And will people be willing to pay even more for their lobster?McFarland: You know, I'm very concerned about lobster prices rising. It seems to be the bottom just keeps going higher and higher every year. I don't believe the consumer is willing to continually absorb the price increase that we have to absorb as restaurant owners selling lobster.