Thursday, July 05, 2007

Lobster, two cents apiece.

Today, July 5th

Sometimes, to read old journals is to weep. Henry D. Thoreau made a small aside in his diary on this day in 1855 to the effect that “The fishermen sell lobsters fresh for two cents apiece.”
The OED says that lobster is “a large marine stalk-eyed ten-footed long-tailed crustacean of the genus Homarus, much used for food; it is greenish or bluish when raw, and of a brilliant red when boiled: the first pair of feet are very large and form the characteristic 'claws'.”

I dont know how often definitions in the OED are updated, but “much used for food” hardly seems to be true today when they cost significantly more than two cents each. At two cents apiece they were spectacularly good value when you consider that they seem to have been a whole lot larger 150 years ago. When was the last time you even heard of a 28 pound lobster?

A book written by a butcher called Thomas F. De Voe called 'The Market Assistant, Containing a Brief Description of Every Article of Human Food Sold in the Public Markets of the Cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn' in 1867 has this to say about those ho-hum, almost too-well known, almost too-common hefty crustaceans:

Lobsters. These shell-fish are too well known to need description, as they are usually found in great plenty in our markets in all months of the year, except December, January, and February. They are, however, better in some of the months than others; that is, the female or hen lobster is generally preferred through the summer months -- especially June and July -- and the male, or "ram" lobster in the winter months, when found. The latter is distinguished from the hen not only for its want of eggs under the flap, or tail, but by the longer and narrower back, running quite to the tail and including the fan or fins. When the eggs, or berries, of the female are large and quite brown, the lobster will be found exhausted, watery, and quite poor. The largest are not always the best, but those ranging from four to six pounds in weight, when fat, are the choice and most delicate.
A very fine variety called blue-backs, with quite thin shells, brought from the coast about Cape Cod, in the months of May and June, are sought after by the lobster epicure. The average weight is usually from two to four pounds, although I have heard of their weighing above twenty. I am told that one was sold in Fulton Market, several years ago, of twenty-eight pounds!! The female seldom weighs above eight pounds. When fresh they are always lively, and the tail will spring strongly back under them when lifted from the stands. Many are found cooked in some of the markets, more particularly the Fulton, of New York, and Faneuil Hall, of Boston, who send them all over the country. The whole lobster is good to eat, except the shell and craw, or stomach, which lies between the eyes.

Professor Kalm, in his travels here in 1748, speaks of lobsters as being "plentifully caught hereabouts," and further says: "I was told of a very remarkable circumstance about these lobsters, and I have afterwards frequently heard it mentioned. The coast of New York had already European inhabitants, for a considerable time, yet no lobsters being in this part of the sea, they were therefore continually brought in great well-boats from New England, where they are plentiful; but it happened that one of these well-boats broke in pieces near Hell-gate, about ten English miles from New York, and all the lobsters in it got off. Since that time they have so multiplied in this part of the sea that they are now caught in the greatest abundance." The Gazette, etc., September 11th, 1766, says: "A live lobster, which weighed thirteen pounds and a quarter, was sold (in the previous month of July) at Billingsgate Market Garden (London) for twenty-four shillings (at New York, in 1765, one of eighteen pounds sold for two shillings and sixpence)." Some considerable difference in the weight and price.

Small wonder that lobster recipes were so abundant in cookbooks of Thoreau's time. Lobster leftovers were all likelihood a real problem. If you happen to be faced with that problem yourself, you could use it in this recipe:

Lobster Patties:
Make some puff-paste, and spread it on very deep patty pans. Bake it empty. Having boiled well two or three fine lobsters, extract all their meta, and mince it very small, mixing it with the coral smoothly mashed, and some yolk of hard-boiled egg, grated, add a little yellow lemon rind, grated. Moisten the mixture well with cream, or fresh butter, or salad oil. Put it into a stew-pan; add very little water, and let it stew till it just comes to a boil. Take it off the fire, and the patties being baked, remove them from the tin pans, place them on a large dish, and fill them up to the top with the mixture.
Similar patties may be made of prawns, or crabs.
[The Lady's Receipt Book .... Miss Leslie; 1847]

Tomorrow's Story ...

The Many Uses of Malt.

Quotation for the Day ...

In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiner's Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sauteed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of freshly picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island Duck, he might have written a masterpiece. A.J. Liebling.

1 comment:

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I was at a chef association presentation recently, and the focus was on new ways to prepare lobster. The latest thing for restaurants comes from a company that sells all of the meat from one lobster (no shells) in a vacumn sealed pouch. If you think the actual lobster is expensive, you should see the price of this new product! But the chef's love it, because it's a time saver!