“The best dish they could present their friends with was a lobster or a piece of fish without bread or anything but a cup of fair spring water. And the long continuance of this diet, with their labours abroad, had something abated the freshness of their former complexion; but God gave them health and strength in a good measure, and showed them by experience the truth of that word, (Deut. viii.3) “That man liveth not by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth a man live.”
- Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford, Morison ed. from 1623.
Now, what, pray tell, could be so bad as HAVING to eat lobster?
Read more closely – it all lobster, all day – every day. And not much more. This isn’t a bread and water diet – it’s a fish and water diet. What does this mean in terms of nutrition? One pound of lobster has 444 calories. So a hard working man who needs 3,000 calories a day (and that’s our guys) would have to eat 6.7 pounds of lobster a day just to break even. But lobsters are large, they’re easy to get and that amount is certainly available without extraordinary effort, which is why they were eating this way.
Lobster is high protein – about 92 grams of protein per pound. (I’m extrapolating these figures from various government publications, all of which deal in smaller portion sizes). A pound of lobster also has 4 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fat and zero fiber. So there is definitely a down side to the all-lobster, all-the-time diet.
But it doesn’t last long. The harvest comes in, there’s bread again, the autumn comes with the vast numbers of wildfowl.
So, sometimes eating lobster isn’t such a great thing. Right, you say, weren’t there laws that said you could have lobster more then twice a week?
I’ll let food historian Sandra Oliver tackle that one from the Debunk house section of her Food History News website.
The lobster and salmon story is one of the most frequently told about New England seafood. It generally goes like this: Salmon and lobster “used to be so abundant that, it is said, ” pick one—the apprentices, servants, boarders, lumbermen, occupants, prisoners, and slaves of-pick another–Newcastle, England, Boston or Lowell, Massachusetts, Puget Sound, Bristol, Rhode Island, Islesboro, Maine, the Maine State Prison, or the South-refused to eat either lobsters or salmon, more than twice a week. Recent versions of the story usually feature lobster, but the vast majority of accounts prefer salmon.
All the stories have in common some group of people who have no control over their food choices, people who have to eat what is served them. The stories all explain that these sufferers had a meeting to form a complaint presented to an official in charge. The story, substantiated only by reference to an alleged expert who “has it on good authority” or words to that effect, is usually put in the context of former natural abundance. So the tale is reported second hand, refers to a time from fifty to one hundred years earlier than the usual late 1800s publishing date. The most common sources for this particular tale are town histories which abounded in the nineteenth century often written by a local antiquarian, though it appears also in George Brown Goode’s The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States published in 1887. Lack of primary evidence is the main reason to doubt this story. No minutes of these indignation meetings, nor ordinances outlawing sea food more than twice a week, have ever emerged. But why salmon, why lobster, why twice a week?
The stories appear when salmon or lobster are becoming historically scarce, when the author wants to recall a distant, more abundant past. Twice a week was for many in early England or the colonies, the number of fast days a week on which one customarily ate fish. As Protestantism neglected religious fasts marked by fish consumption, the idea of having to eat fish more than one’s religion formerly required sounded like an imposition on people who always preferred meat to fish.
And one more recipe from a little later in the seventeenth century that would taste just as good in the 21st century.
“How to Frigacy or Butter Crabs or Lobstors.
Take out all the meat in the shells, and break the Claws of your Lobster, and take out the meat, mince it, or slice it, and put it into the other; add to it a spoonful or two of Claret-wine, a little Fennel minced, and a grated Nutmeg; let it boyl up. Then put in a little drawn Butter, a little Vinegar, and the yolk of an egg, if it not be thick enough; if there are Lobsters, you may dish them in a dish with sippets round in saucers, on a plate garnish them with Fennel and Bay leaves; or you may dish them in a dish with sippets; if they are Crabs, put it in the shell it was taken out, and garnish it round with their Fins, stick them with toasts, and to them only should you add a little Cinamon and Ginger beaten in the buttering.
-1682. Rabisha, William. The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected. Prospect Books ed., 2003. p. 141.