Every historian worth their salted butter knows that the redcoats (a.k.a. “lobsterbacks”) were the scourge of the Continental Army, but did you also know that lobsters themselves were looked down upon just about as harshly by 18th century New Englanders? We’ll find out more in today’s colonial crustacean cooking adventure!
In addition to their well-documented support for the British monarchy, lobsters were detested by many colonists because they were so darn commonplace! These loyalist lobsters could be found with ease and in abundance; The Old Farmer’s Almanac Colonial Cookbook, where we’ve found today’s recipe, mentions that specimens “two feet long could be picked out of shore pools”. Talk about lazy lobster!
Many of you who’ve had the chance to visit our living history days at the Reed Homestead have seen us hard at work cooking recipes from Hannah Glasse’s 1747 “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”. While she included half a dozen lobster meals, we hear that outside of her classic book, this attention to lobsters is actually quite rare in terms of formal recipes from the period. Their aforementioned abundance led people of the era to see the Brit-loving butter receptacles as a boring dish, kind of like how we might view Big Macs – they’re ok-ish and all, but they’re a dime a dozen, nothing really exciting.
Chef and historian Walter Staib (author of The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine which we’ve used to craft lots of meals here!) notes that lobster was considered so “blah” that it was “used as fertilizer and fish bait”, and served only to “children, prisoners, and indentured servants”! He mentions a funny detail about lobster being so loathed that many servants included in their contracts the stipulation that they were not to be subjected to lobster-based meals more than three times each week!
So to subject ourselves to the inglorious diet of 18th century indentured servants, we’re cooking a simple but yummy colonial recipe for Lobster in Cream Sauce. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published way back in 1792, mentions the people of the time having quite the “penchant for rich sauces”. This is certainly on display in this recipe calling for butter, flour, alcohol, cream, egg yolks, then melted butter (not to be confused with the other butter mentioned mere words ago in this same recipe), then EVEN MORE cream to top it off!
This anti-lobster mindset continued for more than a century. Staib mentions that “in the early 1880s, lobster’s wholesale price was only 6 cents a pound”. It begs the question of how in the years since it’s become this dish that people are perfectly willing to hand over an arm and a leg for even though if you think about it, it sort of looks like a weird, giant bug.
Well, the answer to this mollusk-y mystery (I know they’re actually crustaceans and not mollusks but I’m running low on lobster puns!) is that roundabout the midpoint of the 19th century, lobster started popping up on fancy-schmancy menus in the big East Coast cities (and if something is trendy of course it MUST be worthy of even the most lavish – and absurdly expensive – meals!) Another contributing factor is that advances in canning technology and food preservation meant people all over the world could try out lobster. Once they did, walked right into the trap, if you will, and would travel to enjoy the extravagantly-priced fresh-caught version which only a generation ago was seen as a pauper’s meal! It makes you wonder what food might be seen as haute cuisine in another hundred years…
If you’d like, please have a look through today’s photo gallery to see how our attempt at Lobster in Cream Sauce turned out, thank you for joining in another colonial cooking adventure with the Townsend Historical Society!
Out they come!