The Remarkable Story of How Lobster Went From Being Used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy

Business Insider
Analyzing the top news stories across the web
Aug. 18 2013 9:15 AM

The Remarkable Story of How Lobster Went From Being Used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy

175508181
Colonists and Native Americans used these "cockroaches of the sea" as fish bait.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

By Megan Willett

Advertisement

It's time to eat all of the fresh lobster, seafood, and summer fare we can before Labor Day. But here's something to think about while downing every lobster roll in sight before summer's end—our beloved shellfish was once a throw-away food.

Back when the first European settlers reached North America, they wrote that lobsters were so plentiful that piles up to two feet high would wash ashore in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Instead of this leading to epic clam bakes with buckets filled with butter, the colonists were embarrassed by these unsightly "cockroaches of the sea." In fact, lobsters were so plentiful and undesirable that they were commonly used as fertilizer and fish bait by Native Americans and colonists alike. Their abundance also meant colonists had easy access to protein during bad seasons or harvests, so lobster quickly garnered a reputation as the poor man's meal. They were fed to prisoners, apprentices, and slaves as a way to save money.

But all that changed during the mid-1800s because of two things—canned food and railway transportation. People living in the center of the country could now buy cheap canned lobster, which became one of the most popular canned products on the market. They could also afford reasonably-priced train tickets and take trips out to coastal American cities. Fresh lobster was suddenly popular with early New England tourists. Because of the new demand, restaurants started serving the food and recipe books began describing the best way to poach and cook lobster. Lobster had become a commodity instead of a nuisance. Prices began surging in the 1880s.

By World War II, lobster was considered a delicacy. Due to its new status, it was not rationed by the U.S., and the wartime economy allowed wealthy patrons to consume lobster and shellfish at unprecedented rates. And we haven't slowed down since. Today, even when market prices are low, restaurants and food trucks can still charge a premium on their lobster dishes. And that's the story of how trains, tourism, and canned foods made a fertilizer into a gourmet treat.

See also:

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.