It is a homely, creepy, spider-like, yet somehow majestic creature; yet the truth is that the most prized of the marine crustaceans is the esteemed lobster. Beneath the fearsome, thorny shell of the slow-moving animal lies some of the sweetest, most succulent meat to ever savor a deserving palate. According to silver screen folklore, when asked what her favorite meal was, Marilyn Monroe seductively whispered “Lobster and champagne.”
Without doubt it is always the most expensive item on a menu unless you are close to Maine or Australia. The spiny lobsters and slipper varieties you sometimes see at a “reasonable” price look similar but are not closely related to the massively clawed lobster that commands top dollar.
But, it wasn’t always so. In Maine and Massachusetts prior to 1850, lobster meat was considered a food of the poor, fit only for indentured servants and those souls of low social status. Indeed, its most common use at that time was as fish bait or plant fertilizer.
The lobster’s unfortunate status began to change in 1876 when a sea captain named Ben Wenberg invented a dish using lobster meat, butter, cream, cognac, sherry, eggs and cayenne pepper. The dish was demonstrated to Charles Delmonico for preparation at his restaurant, the legendary Delmonico’s in New York City. Following a few adjustments by the restaurant’s chef, Lobster Wenberg was added to the menu and soon became quite popular.
As sometimes occurs between great alliances, a spat ensued between Captain Wenberg and Mr. Delmonico, so the dish was subsequently removed from the menu. Patrons continued to request it, however, so the name was arranged in an anagram and re-emerged as Lobster Newberg.
Even with this new acceptance, lobster was still only appreciated in specific regional areas and it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the spiny crustacean came to be viewed differently on a national level. Assisting the lobster on its way to acceptance was another creation, Lobster Thermidor. This became a much sought- after dish on menus in the 1950s and 60s. Stuffed into the lobster shell was an elegant mixture of lobster meat mixed in a decadent emulsion sauce of mustard, egg yolks, and brandy. An oven-browned crust of Gruyère cheese topped the dramatic presentation display.
Today, both Newberg and Thermidor are considered an “old school” recipes, but are still quite popular among mature gourmands and speaks to an age of brocade wallpaper, dark leather booths and Vodka Gibsons in hushed dark dining rooms; a time when opulent ingredients were a sign of wealth and status.
As Americans turned to lighter meals in the following decades, the haute cuisine sauces of those glory years were replaced with other healthier options. In the second part of this article, we’ll explore the lobster’s patient, lumbering path from infrequent restaurant treat to elegant presentation at home.