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How Lobsters Got a Marketing Makeover
The story of the lobster is a true rags to riches tale. A few hundred years ago, the “cockroaches of the sea” were so common in New England that they were used as fertilizer and livestock feed. Legend has it prisoners protested being forced to eat lobster more than three times a week as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Today, prisoners on death row request it as a last meal. Lobster is the most expensive item on many restaurant menus – the surf to filet mignon’s turf.
Homarus Americanus’ rise is obviously the result of a clever rebranding effort. But unlike the Patagonian toothfish’s makeover as Chilean sea bass, the lobster’s new look didn’t come from seafood marketers. It came from the railroad industry.
Cross Country Traveling
By the end of the 1800s, more and more trains were adding dining cars for long trips. Cross-country travelers were eager for new experiences and exotic foods, and train operators were looking for inexpensive menu options.
Canned lobster fit the bill. It was cheap and didn’t have the same low-class reputation outside of New England. Dining car menus soon began offering dishes like lobster Americaine along with other regional exotic delicacies such as chicken enchiladas and freshly hunted buffalo.
Making Its Way Up in the World
American diners loved it. When travelers reached New England, they started looking for fresh lobster on local menus. Shipping that fresh lobster around the country was expensive, which drove up the price and prestige of the crustacean. That increased popularity and demand depleted supplies, making it even more expensive. By World War II, lobster was considered fancy enough that it was not rationed like other foods. By the 1950s, it had become a status symbol in high-class circles.
Its popularity continues to this day. When diners want to indulge in a fancy dinner (or even a fancy sandwich), they look to the lobster – all thanks to railroad company leaders cracking open cans in dining cars more than a century ago.