Going out to a restaurant for a Maine lobster dinner puts a dent in anyone’s wallet.
Even when the price per pound of lobster goes down at the docks, the prices we pay in restaurants stay high.
The situation seems intractable: A “reasonable” lobster dinner in a big city is one of the most expensive menu items, ranging from $US30 to $US45 for a lobster weighing 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. The price can run even higher depending on where someone dines and when.
A few important factors contribute to the steep prices.
Unlike with most fisheries, there aren’t any commercial farms to cheaply provide a lot of lobsters.
Lobster farming is difficult: The crustaceans grow slowly, eat a lot, and are susceptible to a very contagious disease, and their eggs are difficult to raise. The first commercial lobster farm is in development in Asia, but it will raise the spiny lobster instead of the American lobster.
So markets must rely on lobsters caught in the wild. To get live Maine lobster — if you don’t live near Maine, that is — you need to have it shipped to you. Keeping lobsters alive when shipping is challenging because they need to stay cool and moist while having enough oxygen to breathe and live.
If someone in California wants to order live Maine lobster, for example, the shipping itself can be more than $US40 per crustacean. But the lobster could arrive dead, so it’s better to order in bulk, and the cost of those dead lobsters gets cooked into the one you’re eating.
Lobster tastes best when cooked alive. It’s tough and rubbery if frozen or cooked when dead. That means most of the lobster you eat anywhere in the country comes through the live-lobster market.
Another reason you want your lobster cooked alive is that bacteria love to live inside the animals. This can infect people and make them sick if the lobster isn’t cooked right away. If the lobster dies long before it is cooked, then the bacteria has ample time to grow and spoil the meat.
The live market takes the stronger lobsters for restaurants or stores where people can buy live lobsters. The less vibrant lobsters get sold to processing plants.
But processing lobster isn’t the easiest feat. The meat is the only part of the animal desired, and it’s difficult to get it out of the shell when uncooked — and cooking it before packaging can result in the meat toughening when it’s later prepared for eating. Some lobster-processing companies use high water pressure instead of cooking to more easily separate the meat and provide fresher processed lobster that is easier to transport. But most of these processors are in Canada, only one in the U.S. uses this method.
Either processed or live, a lobster changes hands many times on its way from the ocean floor to your plate. Typically it goes from the fisherman to a dealer, then to either the live market or a processor, then to a grocery store or a restaurant for consumers to purchase. The price increases each time a lobster is passed along.
As Linda Bean, who owns lobster-processing plants, told the Portland Press Herald:
People get paid for each step along the way and we have to account for the losses. That’s how a lobster roll costs $US17 and a white tablecloth, fancy lobster dinner costs $US60 in a big city.
Another reason lobster is such an expensive delicacy could be that humans enjoy eating expensive food.
In the mid-1900s, lobster underwent a huge change from its original role as fertiliser into the luxury it is today, fuelled by railroads and tourism.
As James Suroweicki writes in The New Yorker:
In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.
Also, because the shellfish is so delicate, cheap lobster raises suspicion that it is of inferior quality or potentially dangerous, according to a 1996 study.
One respondent in that study said people would feel it was “some kind of scam.” Another said: “Lobster is perceived as an expensive, high-end product. You don’t want to confuse that image by setting the price too low.”
If you do want cheap lobster, it will most likely cost you travel expenses out to the coast during lobster season — just make sure the lobsters have moulted.
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