Consider the Social Class of the Lobster

January 26, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Food isn’t about nutrition,” wrote Robin Hanson some years ago (here). But it’s also not about taste, or at least not all about taste. Which foods we prize and which we despise also depends on what the food says about the people who consume it, especially their social status.

In the first episode of “The Gilded Age,” the Russells decide to throw an elegant dinner party. They are newly rich, very rich, and new to the neighborhood, Fifth Avenue at 61st St., where they have built a mansion. Mrs. Russell thinks that the dinner, along with generous donations to old-money charities, will bring the Russells entree into “society.”

She is wrong. Old money snubs her. The Russells prepare for 200 guests. Nobody comes.

Like an officer reviewing the troops, she walks past the tables laden with elegant foods.

“What will you do with it all?” asks her husband.
“Church. Get the kitchen staff to box it up and send a message in the morning to the Charity Organization Society. Ask them to collect it.”
“I don’t know what the poor of New York will make of lobster salad.”
He’s wrong. The poor would remember the times not so long ago when lobster was a food for common people, not a delicacy for the elite.

Lobster, as David Foster Wallace 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. [From a blogpost of two years ago, here.]

“The Gilded Age” begins in 1882, which is possibly the inflection point in the lobster trajectory from prole trash to pricey treat. The sites I’ve looked at say imprecisely that the change started “in the 1880s,” so it could have been any time in that decade. I would have loved it if the show had used this history to a culinary dimension to the conflict. The Russells, with their antennae tuned to the latest in fashions, have their groaning board include the new hot item — lobster. Meanwhile in the mansion across the street, old-money Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) learns of this and comments to Ada (Cynthia Nixon), “And did you hear? Lobster. Indeed. Does she really expect that anyone in society would tolerate being served lobster?”

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