Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#564: Food Fit for a... Beggar

I want to wish my readers a Happy Thanksgiving, and hope that they are being thankful for everything they have... and not making plans to rush out on Black Friday to acquire more "stuff" they probably don't need. It is my contention that a truly happy person is the one who is content with what they have, and I'm a pretty happy guy especially now that I have a "new" car that I'm pretty sure won't fall apart on my upcoming road trips. My 25 year old Toyota Tercel had a great engine, but everything else was about to go!

So I will bake a turkey or two and relish the white meat. I just wish my sisters were here so they could polish off the dark meat. Of course some prefer a ham (I've been called that before), processed soybeans or even more unusual holiday fare. I know a few that prefer lobster for their special meal. Lobster season has been with us now for nearly two months, and the population in the dive park (a marine protected area) has certainly plummeted thanks to the ring of legal hoop nets around its perimeter. I just wonder how many of my bug harvesting friends know the history of lobster as a meal? I've relied on an article by Daniel Luzer in Pacific Standard for much of the information on this history.

Today a lobster dinner in a restaurant is considered an expensive treat, but those taking them here may find them a less costly meal than shopping at Vons. In the early years of our country, lobster were not always prized. The colonists at Plymouth Rock were embarrassed to serve it according to statements by William Bradford, the governor of the colony. Lobster (of the New England kind) were so abundant back then, they were often found piled high on the beaches. Our forefathers (and foremothers) considered them a trash food fit only for the poor, servants and prisoners.

One hundred and fifty years later John Rowan wrote that “Lobster shells about a house are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.” They were considered a rather disgusting bottom feeder that resembled an insect (how many of you have munched on that kind of "bug" for dinner?). In fact the name lobster comes from an Old English word that means spider. People did eat lobster, but often clandestinely. It was certainly not a meal for conspicuous consumption lest one's neighbors think you beneath them. During the 19th century canned lobster sold for one quarter the price of Boston baked beans! Even as late as the 1940s, lobster was often purchased canned like tuna rather than boiling them alive.

In the 1800s lobster canneries were a common site along the coast of Maine. In the early days a four to five pound lobster was considered too small to process although overharvesting eventually led them to accept these "small" bugs too. The expansion of our nation's railroads into the continent's interior was an opportunity for canned lobster to reach markets where people were not aware that it was considered a "trash" food by Easterners. By the late 1800s chefs had learned that cooking live lobster offered an even more delicious treat to diners. Prices reached a peak in the 1920s but the Depression greatly reduced demand for bugs since fewer people could afford them.

Today lobster is once again considered a delicacy and restaurant menus list it at "market price." This applies not only to the "Maine" or clawed lobster but to our own spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus). I do think it interesting to inform others about the history of bug munching though. Way back in the mid-1970s I chose to stop hunting, spearfishing and bug gathering. It is a personal choice and I don't criticize those who do so within legal boundaries. Heck, if food prices get much higher I may resume those activities myself!

I'll still eat a bug if one of my friends takes one. However, poaching and violations of the Fish & Wildlife regulations are despicable to me, and I personally believe the regulations need to be tightened or at least better enforced. Mostly gone are the days when one could capture bugs in the 10-15 pound range like when I first arrived on the island. Today I see very few "large" bugs even in protected areas. The population age structure has indeed been altered, and most bugs today are smaller (and younger) than in the thrilling days of yesteryear. Commercial lobster fishers are restricted in the size bug they can trap, but recreational "buggers" are not. We need the big ones to enhance reproduction.

Lobster season is designed to give bugs a chance to mate and produce young. The female carries her eggs beneath her tail thanks to specially designed structures not seen in males. She is said to be "in berry" at that time. It is only after most mating has occurred that their take is permitted. This helps maintain the population numbers, although not necessarily the age structure. However when poachers take bugs out-of-season, or keep more than seven of them at a time, they are impacting the lobster for future generations.

What did the original Plymouth Bay colonists eat for the First Thanksgiving? Apparently there is no authentic account of everything served, but fowl were certainly on the menu. However, there may have been more ducks and geese than turkeys. Venison was provided by the local Wampanoag native Americans. Researchers also suggest that aquatic life including eels, clams, mussels and even lobster were part of the feast. For the vegetarians and vegans corn, chestnuts, walnuts, beechnuts, beans, squash and pumpkins were available. However, apparently pumpkin pie (my favorite "vegetable") was not! So I'm thankful I'll have it this week along with a huge turkey! Burp! Wishing you a thankful Thanksgiving.

© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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"Tail for two" and the label used on a can of lobster meat in the late 1800s; views of a female lobster's tail
showing tufts used to attach eggs to and large pleopods used to protect eggs.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2013 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia