4 Historical Facts You Might Not Know About Lobster – For National Lobster Day

lobster for Christmas dinner

A scene from a British supermarket’s Christmas TV commercial where lobster takes pride of place. Photo courtesy of Nigel Davies.

Hip, hip hooray – it’s National Lobster Day!  Most Mainers know a thing or two about lobster – from how to catch and cook a lobster to the difference between a Maine and a Connecticut lobster roll (Maine lobster rolls win hands down, don’t they). But you may know less about how lobster has featured in American culture through the years. In honor of National Lobster Day, here are four facts I love about the rich role lobster has played in our country’s history.

1. Lobster was likely served at the first American Thanksgiving.  While turkey dominates the table in modern day Thanksgiving feasts, lobster is more likely to have been served during the first Thanksgiving. That’s right, eating lobster on Thanksgiving is more traditional than tucking into turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.  While it is impossible to say if turkey was served on the inaugural Thanksgiving, it’s more likely that smaller birds (goose or duck) were the wildfowl of choice.  In addition to wildfowl, shellfish such as lobster, clams and mussels were plentiful and a common part of the Native American diet at the time so lobster likely made up part of the Pilgrim’s original Thanksgiving day feast in 1621.

2. Lobster as been served at many important Presidential dinners. While we may not have a clear record of what was served at the first Thanksgiving, we do have records of what has been served at Presidential dinners throughout American history and lobster as played a key part.  In fact, Maine lobster is being served at this Friday’s White House State Dinner for China.  And America’s favorite crustacean has been served at a multitude of other important White House dinners. Lobster was served at JFK’s and Obama’s Inaugural Presidential Luncheons and has been served at White House dinners to welcome a variety of visiting dignitaries, from the Chinese president Hu Jintao to Queen Elizabeth.

3. Lobster was once served to prisoners. While today lobster is a frequent feature at Presidential dinners, centuries ago it was more likely to be served to prisoners.  During the colonial days, lobsters were so abundant they would wash up on beaches and were considered to be ‘poor man’s food.’  This plentiful source of protein was a cheap way for European colonists to keep prisoners and indentured fed. A group of servants once brought their master to court with the accusation that he was serving them lobster too frequently. The judge who oversaw the case ruled that these servants should not have to endure lobster dinners more than three times a week.

4. ‘Lobster Palaces’ were a key part of New York society in the 1800s.  In the late 1800s, a group of restaurants emerged along the bright lights of Broadway in New York City.  These restaurants, called ‘lobster palaces,’ were elegant, expensive late-night gathering places where the rich and famous mingled with showgirls and  indulge in extravagant dinners which featured, among other things, lobster.  A typical dinner for one lobster palace patron, successful financier James Buchanan Brady (also known as “Diamond Jim”),  was two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup, followed by of two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a plethora of vegetables. And he still had room for a dessert of pastries and candy!

Happy National Lobster Day!

Christina Lemieux

About Christina Lemieux

Christina Lemieux Oragano grew up in Cutler, Maine, where her family have been in the lobster industry for four generations. She worked as a stern'man' on her father's boat for ten summers before graduating from college and beginning a career in advertising. While her job has taken her from Maine to San Francisco, New York and then to London, she has remained committed and connected to the Maine lobster industry. Her blogging, book writing, and experimentation with lobster recipes are testimony to her devotion to America's favorite crustacean.