BELIEVE IT OR NOT, WHAT WE PAY BIG BUCKS FOR AT MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANTS WERE REJECTED EVEN BY PRISONERS AND SERVANTS.
IT’S FRIDAY EVENING: drink in one hand and menu in the other, you’re glad the emails have finally stopped flooding in. Heck, you deserve a treat and go for the lobster tail: you carefully knot your bib as you sit, eagerly yet patiently for the prized crustacean, which comes cracked in half to reveal its ivory flesh doused in a creamy soup speckled with green herbs. The aromas of citric butter tickle your senses: fork and knife ready, you’re ready to dig in.
With the hefty price tag and prestigious reputation attached to them now, it’s hard to imagine these shelled delicacies symbolised poverty and degradation just less than a century ago, fed only to slaves, apprentices and children. In colonial-rule Massachusetts, some servants allegedly sought to include; stipulations in their contracts that they’d only be fed shellfish twice a week to avoid a lobster-heavy diet.
Like lobster, a lot of what we see in menus at expensive restaurants have climbed the man-made social ladder of rags to riches under these common formulae: scarcity (demand over supply); exoticness (sushi was only deemed high-end when it was brought to the States from Japan, for example; we can also look to a number of French staples like fois gras, escargot and caviar under this category); discovery of its health benefits (quinoa is regarded as an everyday food in South America, for instance); or it was made famous by a celebrity chef (a large part of offal’s popularity, namely, has Chris Cosentino to thank). Though the logic is unsurprising, their backstories are.
According to an article by Daniel Luzer in Pacific Standard magazine, lobster is derived from the Old English word loppe, which translates to spider to mirror its vulgarity as a bottom-feeding ocean dweller. An expert from the article reads: “People did eat lobster, certainly but not happily and usually, openly. Through the 1940s, for instance, American customers could buy lobster meat in cans (like spam or tuna), and it was a fairly low-priced can at that. In the 19th century, when consumers could buy Boston baked beans for 53 cents a pound, canned lobster sold for just 11 cents a pound. People fed lobster to their cats.”
Though even nowadays, lobsters are still sold cheaply in a number of coastal regions (McLobster is a menu item at McDonald’s in Halifax, Canada), food writer and author of Lobster: A Global History, Elizabeth Townsend, says the crustacean has long become a status symbol for the wealthy due to its scarcity inland.
“There are more clawed lobsters being harvested in the eastern US & Canada than ever before. But it’s still a treat in New England. That’s probably different for the rest of the country where it’s harder to get. But in much of Europe, the clawed lobsters are still rare and much more expensive, hence prestigious. Clawless or spiny lobsters are more available and not as costly,” she says.
Another now-Michelin staple with a rags-to-riches story to tell is the oyster. Unlike its crustacean neighbour, eating oysters wasn’t insulting or shameful – they were just regarded as a cheap, accessible source of protein, meaning people ate lots and lots of them in the late 1800s.
According to an article in The Pittsburgh Press, annual consumption in the States was 660 oysters per person, with several dozen making a light appetiser. Turkeys and steaks were stuffed with them; they were put into soups and stews, or, most commonly, they were tossed down raw. Oyster cellars evolved into oyster houses, which soon became a landmark in almost every city in the US.
Food historian and writer Carolyn Tillie would argue, however, that the shelled delicacy has gone through two cycles of rags to riches as they were the first known foods consumed by the upright human while hunter-gatherers tribes also settled by oyster estuaries. Its popularity among nobility, meanwhile, was evident in Louis XIV, “whose love of oysters was so extreme that he insisted on a daily supply, usually shipped from the coasts of France at Cancale, regardless of which palace he was inhabiting. He would begin each meal with six dozens iced, raw oysters.
The British had their Henry IV who regularly downed 400 oysters in a single sitting and the 2014 discovery of Richard III’s bones under a parking lot in Leister provides scientific analysis that demonstrates his tremendous love of oysters.”
Given their high protein, oysters were also the chosen food during times of war: “The Roman emperor Tiberius was known to have planted his commanding force along an oyster bed in modern-day Dubrovnik, Croatia, to fatten them up before a large battle,” Tillie says.
Its most recent rise to prestige stemmed from two sources: the dawn of Industrial Revolution and the resulting over-population and poor sanitation turned the once-popular staple into a breeding ground for disseminating diseases like cholera and typhoid, upping the healthy, uncontaminated ones into real gems. But what made it truly exotic, argues Tillie, was the involvement of science to drive it out of extinction, and eventually, nurture tastier, pseudo-natural oysters: like wine, manufacturing oysters became an art, and as such, oysters became a delicacy no longer appropriate for the layman, but for exquisite tastes.
“What used to be plentiful and free for the taking, now involves extensive planning, science, dredging, and careful shipping to ensure its freshness. With all this new science comes the artisanal grower; those learning how to alter the oyster’s environment to produce a natural and healthy eco-system. There is affinage, a finishing step taken to create a better-tasting oyster by tumbling it in large rotary bins. This process breaks off parts of the thin outer shell and forced the oyster to grow deeper instead of wider. Nature may have created a flatter, thinner oyster, but this new level of control by the grower produces fleshier, meatier specimens with more liquor.”
Perhaps, like lobster, these gastronomic rags-to-riches stories are only applicable to certain regions where the food is scarce, exotic or super healthy; or perhaps, like oysters and fois gras, they’ve gone through such a successful rebranding that they’re officially classified as food for the wealthy. But at the end of the day, taste should be the only factor that gets people to pay those hefty bills.