By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
October 24, 2005
Until the late 1880s, lobsters weren't even on the menu of restaurants in Boston and New York. A pound-sized boiled crustacean went for $5 back then, but by the 1970s, after a century of aggressive lobstering, the same meal was running $30 or more. Today, lobstermen are going out 200 miles or more to bring in 5-pounders or bigger to feed supersized American appetites.
Researchers culling through 150 years of restaurant menus to plot Americans' shifting tastes for and supplies of popular seafood came up with the market histories as part of a worldwide effort to trace how marine life has been affected by fishing and climate changes throughout human history.
The menu project, led by paleo-oceanographer Glenn Jones of Texas A&M University at Galveston, is helping to shed light on the rise and fall of species like lobster, oysters, swordfish, haddock and sole.
"I'd used an old menu I found from someplace back in the '40s to illustrate to my coastal resources class how cheap lobsters had been,'' said Jones, whose research projects normally involve radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis of shells and fish bones.
"In the past few years, I started finding out that there were these big collections of old menus held around the country, and we started asking around about using them to plot what people were eating and what they were paying for it,'' said Jones, who presented the first findings from the study Sunday at a conference held in Kolding, Denmark, on the history of marine animal populations sponsored by the U.N.-supported Census of Marine Life.
The census project is a 10-year effort involving scientists from 73 countries seeking to assess the distribution and abundance of marine species and how they're changing over time.
Worldwide, seafood is a staple for about 1 in 5 people, and a $100 billion business. By some estimates, stocks of large open-ocean fish have fallen by as much as 90 percent in the last 50 years, but experts concede they don't know what the health of many marine populations really is or how they've changed in response to fishing.
"We're trying to build a global picture of what there was in the past so that we have a background to measure the size of the changes we're seeing and give us a yardstick for changes in populations in the future,'' said Paul Holm, leader of the History of Marine Animal Populations Project.
"It's not all gloom and doom. Humans have changed habits, species have been able to shift breeding grounds and there are populations that have been able to bounce back."
Jones' database has been built from about 10,000 menus, mainly from eateries in New York, Boston and San Francisco, that quote not just the fish of the day and their price, but also carry a date.
"Up until about the 1950s, a lot of restaurants printed a menu every day, so they dated them. Daily menus are harder to find from the '70s and '80s, and we'd be glad to hear from people that have menus from those years to help us connect to the menus of today,'' he said.
Almost as interesting is tracing how Americans' tastes in seafood have changed over the last two centuries. "For instance, before the 1880s, you never saw lobster on a menu at all, except in bargain-priced lobster salad,'' Jones said. "It was considered a trash fish no one wanted, not something you'd want to be seen eating. In fact, in Colonial America, servants negotiated agreements that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than twice a week."
The lobster that was consumed until the late 19th century was mostly packed in cans. New England canneries wouldn't buy any lobster smaller than 15 or 20 pounds at first, because they were too much trouble to pick. But the 1870s, the big lobsters were gone, and a 2-pound specimen was prized.
During the Great Depression, lobster prices plummeted, but by the 1950s, restaurants were pricing them in quarter-pound increments. In the past 20 years or so, the price of lobster has held fairly steady relative to inflation, even as the pounds of lobster landed has gone up.
"What's interesting is the appearance of 4- and 5-pound lobsters on today's menus,'' Jones said. 'There's little chance they're coming from the inshore fisheries, so what it indicates to me is the opening of new deep areas on the outer continental shelf."
Among some of the other observations of dining from the past:
- Oyster prices were relatively flat for 100 years, until the 1950s, when they started climbing at twice the rate of inflation as key oyster beds were depleted.
- The price of a wild duck meal rose from today's equivalent of $20 in the 1860s to more than $100 in 1910 as stocks collapsed, prompting the federal government to halt the commercial hunting of migratory birds.
- Swordfish showed up on menus around 1910, but by the 1940s, prices started running three times faster than inflation up until around 1980, when the price of the big fish stabilized at around $25 a pound.
"As supplies dropped and prices rose, some of the species clearly became a status symbol,'' Jones said. "It seems to confirm that many people simply want to eat something that is rare."
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