Of Prisoners and Lobsters
As lobstermen, dealers, scientists, and others in Maine's lobster industry worry about the overabundance of lobsters, we are reminded of the oft-repeated stories that lobster was so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that it was considered a junk food. Indeed, these stories go, colonial Massachusetts even passed a law forbidding the serving of lobsters to servants and prisoners more than twice a week — that would be cruel!
Interesting stuff — and much of it untrue or misinterpreted, according to food historian and cookbook author Sandra L. Oliver.
In 1622 the Plymouth Colony's Governor William Bradford apologized for having only lobster and water to offer newcomers, Oliver writes in The Maine Lobster Book (Down East Books), but "it wasn't a slam against lobster. It was a mere statement of fact: the colonists were subsisting on food they could gather to stave off hunger while they established gardens and farms to produce enough grain, meat, and vegetables to rely on."
In some places, lobsters were so numerous they could be easily scooped up along the beach, but they never stayed plentiful for long. "The longer a coastal area was settled, the sooner it ran out of easy-to-find lobster," Oliver writes.
Stories about laws banning the serving of lobster to prisoners and servants are all secondhand, Oliver says; there's no evidence it ever happened.
With lobster landings expected to exceed last year's record-breaking 104 million pounds (the number is four times the historical recorded average), we wonder what yarns the Mainers of 2360 will be spinning about the lobster glut of 2012.