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

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

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.