This week, on NPR’s radio show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” host Peter Sagal mentioned that people are now subscribing to a theory that lobster doesn’t objectively taste good.
“Now subscribing to?”
As far back as 2008, I was writing about this subject on this very blog, arguing that lobster is not an inherently tasty food but is only loved by people because its price indicates value.
Also, any food that is almost always submerged in melted butter prior to consumption can’t be all that good.
I’m so happy to hear that it only took 16 years for people to finally catch up with me.
If you don’t understand the argument or perhaps disagree, allow me to offer some perspective:
“More than 200 years ago, the lobster was regarded by most Americans as a filthy, bottom-feeding scavenger unfit for consumption by civilized people. Frequently ground up and used as fertilizer, the crustacean was, at best, poor people’s food. In fact, in some colonies, the lobster was the subject of laws—laws that forbade feeding it to prisoners more than once a week because that was ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment.”
This is the opening paragraph of Josh Schonwald’s Slate piece that discusses insects as a viable source of nutrition. As someone who does not love lobster, I adore this paragraph. Lobster – the food for which people pay large sums – was once considered unfit for human consumption.
Despite how much you might profess a love for the taste of lobster, you would almost certainly not be eating it if you were living two centuries ago. Almost no one was choosing to eat it back then. The only people actually consuming lobster back then were those who could afford nothing else and those who had no choice.
Go back another century and you’ll find that lobster was specifically written into the contracts of indentured servants as something that could only be served twice per week because, once again, it was considered disgusting.
It was only when lobster became scarce thanks to overfishing that people changed their minds about its taste and viability.
Also, they added butter. They drowned it in butter.
When it comes to many foods, our perception of taste is a social construct. If lobster were as plentiful as it was two hundred years ago, it would cost a penny a pound, and you would be feeding it to your least favorite dog.
If you’re feeling annoyed or outraged by this reality, or if your instinct is to deny this truth and insist that lobster is objectively delicious, take a moment and ask yourself:
When was the last time you ate lobster absent any mayonnaise or butter? If a restaurant was serving lobster wholly on its own, absent butter or flavoring of any kind, how would you feel?
It’s okay to acknowledge this truth about lobster. It doesn’t make you a bad or foolish person. Taste, as I said, is oftentimes a social construct.
For example, I enjoy Egg McMuffins. I eat one almost every day. I think they are objectively delicious, and since McDonald’s sells millions per day, they probably are tasty. They consist of a fresh egg, a slice of American cheese, a slice of Canadien bacon, and an English muffin.
Oh, and butter. Always butter.
All of those individual ingredients tend to be enjoyed by most people, so the Egg McMuffin is probably an objectively tasty food item.
But I also probably enjoy Egg McMuffins because McDonald’s is a marketing powerhouse that convinced me in my formative years that the Egg McMuffin is delicious.
McDonald’s was also one of my first employers. It was a place where I met friends who I still have today. McDonald’s recognized my talent and ability when most people, including parents and teachers, were ignoring me. They gave me responsibility and a means of making living when I was young and entirely on my own. I put myself through college by working at McDonald’s.
Do all of these factors contribute to my love for the Egg McMuffin?
Of course they do. To argue otherwise would be stupid.
I like Egg McMuffkins, but I probably like them a lot more because of things completely unrelated to their actual taste.
I don’t like Thai food. I can’t find a single thing on a Thai menu that I enjoy. But I’m not so obtuse to think that had I grown up in Thailand, I would’ve starved to death.
Had I been born and raised in Thailand, I would absolutely enjoy Thai food today. Denying this would be stupid.
Taste, in many cases, is a social construct.
Despite this reality, lobster lovers have argued vociferously with me over the years that had they been alive in 1736 or 1812, they would’ve still been eating and enjoying lobster. They insist that they dunk their lobster in butter but only because it makes the lobster taste better, but absent the butter, the meat of a lobster is still delicious.
A few have actually compared the butter on lobster to catsup and pickles on a cheeseburger.
But I know many people who will eat a cheeseburger even if catsup or pickles aren’t available. Many people prefer cheeseburgers absent these condiments. Some crazy people – my son included – even prefer it without the cheese.
How many people eat lobster without butter?
Still, these lobster defenders argue that despite the vast majority of Americans living two centuries ago, grinding lobster into fertilizer and feeding it to incarcerated people, they would’ve been the single beacon of wisdom when it comes to this food.
While others despised it, they insist they would’ve adored it.
How enlightened they must be.
One more unfortunate reality about lobster:
Boiling it alive is incredibly cruel.
It was previously believed (perhaps conveniently) that the lobsters were incapable of feeling pain. This belief allowed chefs to drop lobsters into boiling pots of water while still alive without any moral conundrum.
New research demonstrates that this is not the case. Contrary to claims made by seafood sellers, lobsters do feel pain, and they suffer immensely when they are cut, broiled, or boiled alive. Most scientists agree that a lobster’s nervous system is actually quite sophisticated.
In fact, not only do lobsters feel pain, but research has proven that they are capable of learning to avoid pain.
Unless, of course, you drop them into a pot of boiling water. Then there’s no avoiding the agony of death. Just a horrific boiling of flesh and eyes until the lobster is dead.
I have no problem with people eating lobster. It would be nice to find a more humane way to kill them before boiling them, but if you love lobster, good for you. While I don’t love lobster and haven’t eaten it in years, I thought it was fine on the handful of occasions when I tried it.
It was submerged in butter, of course, because that is how lobster is eaten.
But perhaps be willing to acknowledge that you probably like lobster because you were told to like lobster, and you were told to like lobster because it costs a lot of money, and it costs a lot of money because of its historical scarcity.
According to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” people are apparently coming around to this truth.
It’s about time.