Lobster Reconsidered

January 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was at the fish counter in Citarella, trying to decide what to get for dinner. I did not consider the lobster.

Eighty dollars a pound is a bit out of my usual price range.

Lobster, as David Foster mentions in passing in his famous essay,* was not always a delicacy. In the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, lobster was trash food. It was fed to prisoners. Two hundred fifty years later, the social status of lobster hadn’t improved. In the 1870s, indentured servants sued, successfully, so that their masters could feed them lobster no more than three times a week.

Several accounts I found online say that lobster became a delicacy in the 1950s, but I’m not so sure. When I noticed that $80/lb price tag, I remembered a 1953 New Yorker article by St. Clair McKelway that the magazine had recommended not to long ago as retro reading. The main figure is Pearl, a salesgirl in a New York department store.

For a while, she lived with her mother and her stepfather in Brooklyn, but as soon as she got a job—as a salesgirl in a department store—she moved to a furnished room all her own on the upper West Side of Manhattan.. . . She made friends quickly with many of the salesgirls at the store and lunched at a soda fountain every day and dined in a cafeteria almost every night with large groups of them.

I picture her as much like the Rooney Mara character in “Carol,” the Todd Haynes movie set in early 1950s.

And what did Pearl have for lunch?

Her favorite lunch was African-lobster-tail salad and Coca-Cola, followed by a junior banana split. Her favorite dinner was chicken potpie with mushrooms, pecan pie with whipped cream, and coffee.

If shopgirls were eating lobster — even canned lobster — for lunch, how much of an upscale delicacy could it have been? Besides, the price of lobster did not begin to rise until a few years later [source].

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Besides the rise in prices after the 1950s, the chart also shows a steady decline in price from about 1975 to 1990. Funny, but I didn’t notice. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Since then, there has been a steady increase in production accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical rise in price as well. That’s because of increased demand from China. That trend was interrupted by the global financial crisis but has now returned. It may be a while before I haul out my recipe for the lobster mousse that I once served to dinner guests.

* “Consider the Lobster” is the title piece in DFW’s 2005 collection of essays. Wallace is concerned mostly with the ethics of boiling lobsters. That and footnotes.

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