Lobsters are as American as Apple Pie
Before America became “America”, lobsters were a part of the daily lives, diets, and subsequently, the culture of the new world. The lobster, revered by many today as an expensive delicacy, was once known as “poor man’s food” (hard to believe, but true!).
Now regarded as luxurious and indulgent, our curmudgeonly crustacean has certainly come into its own...from being cooked in sand pits by early native American tribes and English settlers of the “new world” to taking center stage in the grand ‘lobster palaces’ of late 19th century New York City and in modern-day America at White House dinners. The lobster has clearly been an integral part of American culture since America began.
Lobsters and the Colonization of Early America
The sand pits referred to were the cooking vessels of Native American tribes that made up Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut. Going back over 2000 years, the Native Americans used them to cook clams, lobsters and other shellfish, as there were no large cook pots. The Wabanaki tribe were the indigenous people who lived in the area that is the Northeastern U.S. or New England, and the Canadian Maritimes. They were claimed to have lived on the land for over 12,000 years, and were present when the first colonists arrived. The Wabanaki collected clams and shellfish that were abundant along the coastline in the area now known as Bar Harbor, and had the earliest clambakes—leaving great piles of shells as the proof of the abundance of seafood they consumed.
The tradition of the clambake was shared with the Pilgrims as they took notice of the great shoreline feast, but not really adopted as a part of the Northeastern culture until the late 1700s. Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, clambakes were regarded as a genuine American tradition, connected to other culturally significant holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day, and held in as high a symbolic high-esteem as apple pie.
As the early colonists settled into life in the new world, lobsters were practically a daily part of the colonists’ diet. As early as 1605, an overabundance of lobsters could easily be caught along Maine’s coastline, and Virginia colonist Captain John Smith, encountered the abundance of lobsters that were a part of the Maine coastline during the early part of the 1600s.*
The first American Thanksgiving could possibly have included lobsters, along with goose or duck (turkey was not on the menu!), which were the preferred choices for meat to serve at the earliest Thanksgiving meal. Along with lobsters, clams, and mussels, both colonists and Native Americans dined on pretty much the same foods at that first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621.
But, in all of their abundance, lobsters were in such plentiful supply, they’d wash themselves up on the coastal beaches. They started out as a ‘poor man’s food’ with much of their consumption coming from jailed inmates and indentured servants.
Rising Up in the World of Seafood
Fast forward about 275 years and by the late 1800s, as the country was rapidly being connected more and more by railroad, it opened the door for business startups to pack and ship live lobsters all over the states! It was even documented that William Randolph Hearst, the early newspaper mogul, made the first request for an order of live lobsters for a Colorado dinner party!
As railroads made Maine more accessible to affluent Americans in search of unique vacation spots, cities and towns like Bar Harbor, Boothbay and others became hot spots for the wealthy to enjoy a Maine vacation. With hearty seafood appetites, Maine’s lobster suppliers took on greater prominence, along with east coast traditions like New England clambakes and lobster broils.
With the elevation of lobster as a delicacy for the rich, the introduction of opulent lobster palaces in New York City ushered in an era of expensive and extravagant restaurants that catered to New York society and the rich and famous, from financial and industrial barons of the day to stars of the Broadway stage. It was observed that when the famous financier, James Buchanan Brady (“Diamond Jim”, as he was known), visited his favorite lobster palace, a typical dinner for him consisted of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and several servings of turtle soup, along with two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, sirloin steak, a couple of servings of terrapin and an excess of vegetables. Pastries and candy rounded out dinner as his dessert!
Lobster has played a major role at Presidential dinners and dinners for visiting dignitaries since it acquired such elite status, and have even won favor with Millennials, who’ve come of age and redefined how Americans relate to lobster. Even though lobster still represents an indulgent seafood luxury to many, it’s a sustainable food source which appeals to them in an age of concern for the environment. And so we salute the lobster, as American as apple pie!