There are a couple of facts everybody loves to share about Maine lobster: In Colonial days, it was so plentiful prisoners were forced to eat it. Indentured servants requested their contracts specify that lobster could only be served so many times per week. Anything more than that was cruel and unusual punishment.
I usually get annoyed hearing these same anecdotes so often, but I also realize why they’re so memorable. It’s absurd to think of anyone protesting lobster for dinner. At some point lobster magically transformed from bottom-of-the-barrel foodstuff into a luxury cuisine. How did that happen?
Cathy Billings of the Maine Lobster Institute brings up those anecdotes and answers that question in an interview promoting her new book, “The Maine Lobster Industry: A History of Culture, Conservation and Commerce.”
In the interview, which you can watch in the video below, she says part of the reason lobster got a bad rap is because people thought of it as a scavenger willing to eat anything it found on the seafloor. She says her boss at the Lobster Institute, Dr. Robert Bayer, prefers to call them “opportunists.”
Billings says lobster became popular after it become portable, thanks to advances in technology that allowed it to be shipped to diners in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. But it really hit the big time thanks to wealthy people like the Rockefellers who summered in Maine and served it to their guests. (Wouldn’t it be nice to use summer as a verb?)
Today, Maine lobster is popular and plentiful. It could also be on the verge of another transformation thanks in part to lobstermen like Jim Merryman of Harpswell. When I met Jim I was deeply impressed by his knowledge of the species. He’s just as impressive off the water where he’s making a name for himself as lobster dealer and educator. He’s an expert marketer who’s also a Mainer to the core — which makes for an interesting contrast. Read more about Jim here (starting on page 25).
As part of his business, he sells lobster at a farmers market in Brunswick (with help from the pound’s enthusiastic manager Sue Nelson). Those direct-to-consumer sales add value for Jim and the other lobstermen who sell through his dealership, and by making those consumer connections, Jim and Sue are also educating people about lobster and the people who catch it.
By demystifying lobster and spreading the word about its sustainability, they may also help with its next makeover. Most people think of lobsters as a summer vacation treat. But some in the industry would like it be thought of as an everyday protein by people across the country. It makes sense. Why import so many millions of pounds of farmed shrimp and tilapia when we have sustainable seafood like lobster landed right on our shores? Hopefully efforts like the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative will also help.
It’s a great idea as long as I don’t have to eat it more than three times per week.