The history of food throughout the ages is intertwined with the history of romance and sex. Societies around the world and throughout the ages have treated certain culinary delights as aphrodisiacs with reverence — societies, that is, with the exception of ours. Perhaps it is the influence of a government agency (the FDA maintains that no food should be considered a sexual aid) or perhaps it is the puritanical nature deeply rooted in the American psyche that has largely kept us from celebrating the sensuality of aphrodisiacs.
There is one, delightful, delicious, and luxurious exception to our distinct lack of American aphrodisiacs: the Maine lobster. However, to say that the classification of lobster as an aphrodisiac is a strictly American tradition would be shortsighted.
Since antiquity, all shellfish has been linked with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. In Lobster, expert on the crustacean Richard J. King makes reference to the shellfish’s thousand-year reputation as an aphrodisiac. Mediterranean lobster was embraced at the tables of ancient Greece, (although I’ve never read any reports of the ancient Greeks hosting lobster-enhanced orgies), and I have found accounts of lobsters being served for the purpose of sexual satisfaction in the Central American nation of Belize. At one time, Australian lobster was supposed to have been in great demand in Asia for use as an aphrodisiac.
Of course, none of these shellfish are quite the same as the crustacean we know as Maine lobster, nor have these varieties reached the international popularity as an aphrodisiac that the American variety now enjoys.
But Maine lobster was not always considered an aphrodisiac. In fact, its reputation is rather new in the grand scheme of aphrodisiac history. At one time, lobsters were crushed and used as fertilizer. They were the food of peasants and prisoners. So plentiful was New England’s lobster population that fishermen considered them an annoying by-catch. David Foster Wallace’s essay on the topic, Consider the Lobster, goes into great (although largely exaggerated) detail into the early American distaste for the shellfish. But around the mid-nineteenth century, the technique of canning was perfected and lobster became a protein of choice for preserving in a can. Unfortunately, it was the invention of canning that was in some ways also lobster’s downfall, depleting populations to the point where in some areas, lobster became scarce.
Soon lobster was en vogue and in the just before the turn of the twentieth century, New York City’s Lobster Palace Society emerged. Elaborate, expensive, glamorous, seductive (and often gaudy) restaurants, Lobster Palaces specialized in lobster preparations and attracted a wealthy and famous clientele. These restaurants made the shellfish wildly popular as an indulgence and introduced many of the preparations still served today including lobster Newberg and lobster Victoria.