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Lobster Tales: Narratives of Food, Past, and Place in Maritime Canada

  • Diane Tye
Couverture de Food, Language, and Identity,                Volume 3, numéro 1, 2011, Cuizine

Corps de l’article

As a waitress during my university years in the 1970s, I often served lobster in the shell to diners at the small Nova Scotian hotel where I worked. The lobster dinner—the most expensive and elaborate meal on the menu—was a culinary rite of passage for many tourists. [1] Restaurant staff, on the other hand, secretly delighted when lobsters arrived back in the kitchen barely touched. We enjoyed the irony of tourists spending money on food they couldn’t eat, despite the printed instructions on the placemat. We knew that the lobster being sold as pricey and special was until recently considered barely edible by Maritimers themselves. Children of earlier generations were shamed when forced to bring a lobster sandwich to school; lobster was used to fertilize farmers’ fields. If you had asked how we knew these things, we would not have been able to say—we just knew. The “facts” as we understood them were not usually shared through fully developed stories but came to us as brief “generalization narratives” [2] that were part of our common knowledge.

These widespread narratives are difficult to document. Notwithstanding their parallel lives in popular publications, such stories exist mostly in oral tradition, unattached to specific details that would allow them to be substantiated. One version of the lobster narrative comes from Helen Darcy Wilson. Writing of her childhood in a Nova Scotian fishing family in the 1940s to 1950s, Wilson reinforces the popular memory of lobster as a food of shame:

I’ll never get used to the idea that lobster and crab are luxury foods, in fact that lobster costs considerably over a dollar a pound. We ate lobster because we were poor. I remember Mama put fresh boiled lobster in our school lunches and we always threw them away on our way to school. We were ashamed to let the other kids see them because then they would know that we didn’t have anything else to eat in the house.” [3]

Firsthand accounts like Wilson’s are uncommon. The people I spoke with recognized such narratives, but could not remember how they had learned them. Like many contemporary legends, these stories—regardless of their truthfulness—probably did not happen to as many people in as many places at as many times as their popularity suggests. [4] By the late 1880s, in fact, concerns about declining lobster stocks had resulted in a regulated lobster fishery with defined zones and seasons as well as catch restrictions, [5] a development which suggests that stories of lobster’s past abundance stem only from specific economic periods. In folklore study, however, veracity is less important than belief. [6] These narratives have persisted because they speak loudly of how Maritime Canadians see themselves.

Given the links between food and memory, it is not surprising that food figures so prominently in stories of identity. Writing of his work with the Kalymnians, for instance, David E. Sutton describes the “repetitive act of eating as a medium for the more enduring act of remembering,” which he equates to an articulation of identity. [7] Jonathan Safran Foer similarly asserts that food serves two purposes: “it nourishes and it helps you remember.” Reflecting on the cuisine of his own Jewish background, Foer notes that “the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but it makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.” As a result, Foer asserts, “[e]ating and storytelling are inseparable.” [8] Across eastern Canada, the way lobster is consumed—or not consumed—tells its own story.

Lobster Business

In Maritime Canada, lobster has always been more about work than food. George Leard writes that “[i]n early Acadia and down to almost modern times lobsters were an unappreciated food that had to be eaten fresh, but if eaten in any quantity soon cloyed the appetite.” [9] Leard claims that the lack of interest in lobsters as food meant that they were allowed to grow to old age and huge sizes; as evidence, he cites an article published in the Halifax Guardian on September 26, 1885, which reports that a man caught a 4-foot lobster. [10] Leard also quotes an 1839 writer who advises those who had sickened themselves with lobster by trying to make it a dietary staple, “never to have them for dinner and not to eat them at break/fast or supper more than once a week.” [11]

One hundred years later, culinary impressions were no more favourable. In the 1940s, the comments of an Atlantic Canadian lobster buyer known as “the Lobster King” support the view of the lobster as a source of income rather than nourishment: “I don’t eat lobster myself. They’re for fancy eating places and we fishermen aren’t fancy.” [12] Indeed, lobsters were often perceived as a food of necessity rather than choice. Another 1940s article by Dorothy Richardson describes fishermen resorting to lobster as an efficient noon meal, served at what Newfoundlanders would call a “boil up”:

Sometimes lobster boats will tie together in a group and the men go aboard one of the craft to relax on the sun-warmed floorboards for a chat and a cigarette. Soon we see cosy smoke curling from the cud chimneys and we know the men are cooking a few lobsters for dinner and boiling a pot of tea. [13]

In this context, lobster is practical rather than preferred. As Richardson observes, “[t]he fishermen who have them nearly every day of the season for a hot meal in their boats say they tire of them.” [14] Maritime women responded to this fatigue by learning to prepare lobster in a number of ways. Marie Nightingale writes that, “in the days when lobsters were plentiful and cheap they were served in every possible way. Lobster Chowder was a hearty main dish; Lobster Stew, a tasty entrée; moreover, to get the last bit of goodness out of lobster, housewives boiled their shells to make a soup.” [15] Richardson herself preferred to serve lobster as chowder—or “creamed lobster,” as she called it—and indicates that this had been a traditional dish in her family for two generations. Despite these efforts, however, Maritime residents have never considered lobster as versatile as other fish.

Early travellers to Atlantic Canada marvelled at the abundance of fish, including lobster, which they saw there. Many used gaffs or rakes to extract lobster from around rocks close to shore. When American humourist Frederick S. Cozzens visited Halifax in 1856, for example, he fished for lobster with a flat-bottomed skiff and long iron-tipped poles, but the lobsters escaped. [16] This practice was still relied on recreationally in the early 20th century. Travel writer Will R. Bird describes a 1951 visit to Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where a resident explained that the local Lobster Bay was “so named because in the old days the men could go out at low tide and take in lobsters with long-handled rakes.” [17] Clara Dennis writes similarly of Seal Island:

We came upon the ‘Lobster Pot,’ a big rock with a great hole in the middle. The rock is covered at high tide. The fishermen used to put cod heads in the hole at low tide. At high tide the lobster would come in. When the tide ebbed, the fishermen would go down and fish the lobsters out with their hands. [18]

A final illustration comes from Newfoundland. Describing her childhood in a Newfoundland outport in the 1920s and 30s, Ryan writes: “[i]n the spring, Dad would take us all out in the boat. We would watch him get lobsters from under the rocks. He would use a long gaff and lean over the side of the boat and try to get the lobsters in where the water was shallow enough for him to reach them.” [19]

The lobster’s odds worsened significantly in the mid-1800s with the development of the canning industry. [20] One 1878 report records catches averaging six thousand lobsters per factory per day. [21] Notwithstanding these astounding numbers, lobsters were supplementary to most workers’ incomes. As Leard puts it, they were “something for boys to make an uncertain penny on. Lobsters indeed were not even considered as being worth more than their weight in manure. They were sometimes taken home by the thrifty kelp-gatherers of the early days, who recognized the value of lobster as compost material.” [22]

The transformation of lobster into a valued commodity came with the move from rake to baited trap and the growth of the live lobster market in the 1950s; live lobster sales rapidly replaced the canneries and opened up lucrative Canadian and American markets. Today, approximately 3,100 fishers set over a million traps annually in 41 Atlantic Canadian districts, each governed by a two-month season. In PEI alone, this translates to an annual harvest of over 20 million pounds. [23] Fishers, or harvesters, as they are more often called, are either highly regulated small business owners, or—if they are not boat owners—employees of one. Despite the importance of the industry to the regional economy, however, harvesters remain powerless to control fundamental aspects of their means of production, including the relative value of the “product.” Profits do not always reach them. In 2009, for example, lobster prices were the lowest in decades. Blame was assigned to people on all levels: boat owners, processors, buyers, and policymakers. As a result, lobster harvesters complained that their earnings, even when supplemented with Employment Insurance, did not allow them to make ends meet. [24] Increased industrialization has also led to an increase in the commodification of lobster. Lobster, which had never been regarded as a desirable food source by those who caught it to begin with, has become simply “the resource” or, once caught, “product.” [25]

Larry the Lobster

That lobster is best suited to occasional eating has helped to secure its place as the lynchpin in the newest work arena for many Maritimers: the tourism sector. [26] The PEI tourism department advises travellers not to think of visiting without eating a lobster, while the entire province of Nova Scotia (in which 2009 was the year of the lobster), as well as individual Maritime communities claim the title of “lobster capital.” [27] In an effort to offer visitors a unique experience and then to sell them evidence that they have had it, the region promotes lobster in its restaurants, hosts several summer-long lobster suppers, and features four long-running lobster festivals: in Pictou and Shelburne County, Nova Scotia; Summerside, Prince Edward Island; and Shediac, New Brunswick. While in Shediac you can get your picture taken with a statue billed as “the world’s biggest lobster” and, as in several other communities throughout the region, you can pay to go out on a lobster boat. The range of lobster souvenirs runs the gamut from clothing and cookbooks to children’s toys and candy. [28]

Promoters face challenges when lobster is at the intersection of industry and tourism. They must lure customers–that is, tourists–by portraying lobster as a food that marks a special time—vacation—as well as a special place. But when eating an animal includes taking it home and killing it in your own kitchen, marketing that animal can be a tricky business—a point David Foster Wallace makes in his famous piece, “Considering the Lobster.” [29] Covering the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet Magazine, Wallace was appalled by the tanks of live lobster looking out at him. Rather than relishing the specialness of the succulent lobster as the PEI government instructs visitors to do, he was horrified by the relish expressed by other lobster-eating patrons.

Even for the less squeamish neophyte who can tolerate sucking lobster legs and digging meat out of the body cavity with picks, there is a fine line to be walked between an anthropomorphic over-identification with lobsters and the total denial of such identification underlying the fishing industry. A PEI video tourism ad featuring the “Lobster Feast Experience” with Captain Mark Jenkins attempts to strike this delicate balance. Welcoming visitors to his lobster boat-turned-tour boat in Charlottetown Harbour, Jenkins hauls in a lobster trap to reveal a 9-pound, 30-year-old lobster that he refers to not as product, but as Larry. Jenkins shows concern for the lobster’s wellbeing as he gently returns it overboard. The tourists then round off their $85 excursion with a lobster dinner that is not Larry. [30]

The Lobster Feed

Maritimers eat lobster at regional festivals, [31] summer-long lobster supper tourist operations, or when they purchase them alive or boiled from a grocery store or lobster pound. More commonly, however, they consume lobsters at an annual “feed.” On these occasions, lobsters are purchased live and in large quantities from a pound or fisherman known for selecting “good” lobsters that are full of meat. [32] The lobsters are often prepared with great precision, kept and then boiled in salt water following exact timing. Fastidiousness in determining where and from whom the lobsters are purchased, their size, and the manner in which they are cooked usually does not extend to the way in which they are served. Rather, the table is covered with newspapers, and pots, bowls, or buckets collect empty shells. Nutcrackers and other implements, including hammers, can be used for cracking, although these are shunned by the most experienced. A feed, moreover, usually consists only of lobster with a little melted butter for dipping—no side dishes are provided. Normally everyone eats more than one with the goal of satisfying his or her taste until next year.

Like the New England clambake, the Maritime lobster feed celebrates nature and denies culture; [33] the omission of side dishes renounces traditional understandings of what constitutes a “meal,” [34] while the consumption of the entire lobster challenges regional understandings of what makes for appropriate “food.” In a re-appropriation of peasant food, that is, Maritimers eat lobster in counter-hegemonic ways–cleaning out the body cavity and eating the roe. [35] One Acadian in his thirties who grew up in the Clare district of Nova Scotia describes this method of eating lobster, which he learned from his father: “I eat lobster cold with no butter. With a butter knife. I don’t use a nut cracker or anything. I open everything, like claws, with a butter knife. I eat everything, the chambers, even ‘la grandmère’ behind the head.” [36] This and similar techniques are widespread in the region, and go back generations. As a fisherman explained to travel writer Will R. Bird in the 1940s,

“Folks not used to lobsters lose a lot of the best eatin’. They fork the meat out of the tail and claws and leave the rest alone, never knowin’ the best tidbits is hid in the main gear or that they kin suck the meat out of the legs. Wimmen here a year gone said lobster legs was juicier an’ better’n frog legs. Me. I don’t know. I never et frog legs.” [37]

The tradition of the feed stands in stark contrast to the lobster dinners I served tourists during my years as a waitress: each consisted of a complete meal, literally served on a silver platter, and many diners ate only the choicest, most accessible parts. Feeds, on the other hand, do not impose distance between diners and lobsters through fancy tablecloths or strict etiquette. Instead, Maritimers enjoy the intimacy of the feed, both with the lobster, as they pry and suck bits of meat from the shell, and with the other diners who share their experience. The feed brings family and friends together in a celebration of summer and leisure, and simultaneously enacts a common past rooted in the land and the sea. For many, to eat lobster is to taste home. [38]

Lobster Tales

As Foer writes, “[w]e are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves.” [39] Accounts of lobster being used to fertilize farm fields or of children embarrassed to take lobster sandwiches to school symbolize a time when the economy of the Maritime Provinces was close to subsistence; times were hard. Yet for Maritimers, these generalized narratives embody the wealth of the past rather than its poverty. [40] They tell of a day before fishers and lobsters were fully commodified as “harvesters” and as “product.” People worked hard but enjoyed greater independence; licences and government regulations did not bind fishermen so tightly. These stories are also shorthand for, or “tableaux” of, [41] the plight of Maritime fishers, and may be extended to apply to other labourers who have not been adequately reimbursed. Ecologically, they speak of a time when the region’s natural resources were abundant–lobsters could be found in the rocks and traps yielded so many they were difficult to lift–and accessible to everyone. Government, buyers, and processors exerted less control over the oceans. Instead, residents determined how much lobster was too much, and the surplus helped farmers build up land needed to grow food.

In linking what Pierre Bourdieu identifies as the main opposition in the capital value of cultural consumption—tastes of necessity and tastes of luxury [42]—these stories also implicitly poke fun at restaurant goers who pay $30 for meals that in the past would hardly have been considered food. The intimacy of the lobster feed contrasts with the detached dining experience of tourists who lack the insider knowledge to competently buy, prepare, and eat lobster. Shared knowledge of the role the lobster has played in the region’s past, whether largely apocryphal or factual, makes history—as it is imagined—visible. [43] Serving as critical counter-memory, the stories of lobster told by Maritime Canadians mediate work and leisure, fishing industry and tourism, present and past, just as they raise important issues of ecology, power and place.

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