Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Never Eat Lobster Alone

For the English colonists who started arriving on the American coast in large numbers during the 1600s, lobster was what you ate if you could not catch enough fish. In fact, lobster was used as bait for fish. Lobster developed a reputation as hardship food, and food for the poor. All along the coastal communities, it is bandied about that indentured servants were known to complain if they were fed lobster too often. What changed all this – what converted lobster from poor man’s to rich man’s food – was a combination of the canning industry and the restaurant industry.  

Industrial canning and transportation by steamship and railroad developed in the mid-1800s. Inland, where a person would never in their lifetime see a live lobster, canned lobster was a reasonably priced commodity. The Burnham & Morrill Company was one of the early lobster canneries in existence in Maine, now better known for its B&M baked beans. Lobsters were still so plentiful that anything under three pounds was thrown back as not worth the labor needed to remove the meat for canning. Upper-class restaurants in Boston and New York began offering fresh-cooked lobster. The doings of the well-off were grist for gossipy newspapers, then trickled down to the upper middle classes.

Lobsters can exceed 25 pounds and be more than 50 years old.

Thorstein Veblen, a noted economist and sociologist best known for his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, popularized the concept of “conspicuous consumption.” The term refers to spending money on luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power. While initially applied to the very wealthy, who might have large properties, yachts, etc., in this country it expanded in time to the fuzzy-edged definition of middle class, where discretionary income (or modest inherited wealth) allowed displays such as trading in for a new car every year or two, vacationing in Europe – and serving lobster (or caviar, or expensive wines) to one’s guests at celebratory events.  

The economists’ term “Veblen goods” applies to types of luxury goods for which purchases increase as prices increase, thus running contrary to the normal laws of supply and demand, which dictate that purchases decrease as prices rise. For luxury goods, higher prices make products desirable as a status symbol. Manufacturers abet this trend by deliberately limiting supply, per prestige clothing, or else the supply may be naturally limited. Oddly, when the price of a luxury item decreases, its prestige may suffer and demand decline.    

Six Maine (Portland-bought) lobsters transported across state lines to
Massachusetts, for a celebratory group dinner.
The current world market situation for live lobster is interesting. Last year, the abrupt imposition of a Chinese 25% tariff on lobster imports from the U.S., in response to the trade war started by the U.S. government, the market for shipping live lobsters to China, which was approaching $100 million per year, crashed to near zero (Canadian lobster filled the gap). The sudden surplus depressed market prices. A year later, the tariff is still in place, but the industry adapted. “Boat price” increased from $3.92 per pound in 2017 to $4.05 in 2019 despite a larger harvest, and more to the point, growth for demand for frozen lobster tails and trendy restaurant offerings such as lobster tacos absorbed the surplus. As of June 2019, local supermarket prices for live lobster are $10-12 per pound. Going forward, a new problem affecting lobster harvesting is a shortage of bait for the traps. Quotas are being set for herring catch, which will translate to higher lobster prices as substitute bait is purchased.

Returning to the premise of the column title, “Never Eat Lobster Alone,” as noted, today, lobster is strongly identified as a prestige food and a celebratory food, meant to be eaten in public restaurants, where people can be seen by the less fortunate. Even when purchased for consumption at home, the prevailing practice is for a couple (or family) to eat lobster together on special occasions. This shared consumption is a self-confirmation of worthiness and good fortune. For all these reasons, eating a lobster alone, whether at a restaurant or at home, is counter-productive to the very idea. The mouth may say “Yes,” but the brain will say “Sad.”  

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