We’re living in uncertain times.  I’m not going to qualify that, I’ll let you check the article date and decide for yourself.  I don’t want to qualify it because I could make a list and you might find it unsettling!  That is the opposite of the intention of this article.

Instead, I’m going to settle the nerves with a story.  A story about species that are older than any primate.  A species that once was considered the lowest of the low!  That is, until it discovered rail travel. 

And now, it is a renowned, worldwide symbol of luxury and opulence, possibly second only to caviar (which I acknowledge for the pedants among you is not even a species). 

This railway story is about Lobster!

Boiled Alive!

Lobster is ubiquitous and I’m sure you’re not to fussed over the scientific ‘ins and outs’ so I won’t go into great detail!  There are about twenty different types of Lobster and there are some things called ‘lobster’ that aren’t, they just look a bit similar…big creepy sea spiders! Again, for the pedants, I accept they have 10 legs!

Lobsters have been around for 140 million years.  The earliest primates didn’t emerge until 60 million years ago!  Modern humans similar to us, developed between 160,000 – 60,000 years ago.  Even then, we didn’t quite fully populate the globe until about 13,000 years ago.  Don’t feel too bad, we can blame the last ice age!

Available evidence suggests that as soon as we spread to coastal communities worldwide, we were eating lobster.  From Peru to Papua New Guinea where large collections of shells indicate consumption by coastal communities.  Shells were even used to produce dyes and tools.

If you’ve seen a cartoon lobster, it was probably red.  If you’ve seen it in a restaurant, then most likely it was somewhere between purple/dark blue and a very deep green.  The colour of lobster gives a clue to its changing place in the world and some of the more lurid associations with it as a food.

Most restaurants don’t ask you to go to the front desk and choose which lamb, pig or chicken running around a pen you’d like them to cook for you!  But you’re probably familiar with the idea or even done it with lobster?

Once the chosen lobster is picked, often it will be boiled alive.

Lobster ‘Laws’/ Lobster ‘Clause’

There are some fairly bizarre laws around the world.  Kite flying (paper and string ones, not the birds) is illegal in both Buenos Aires, Argentina and Victoria, Australia. Rome and Turin, Italy both have rules about mandatory dog walking and in Quitman, Georgia, USA it is illegal for a chicken to cross the road.  In Scotland, it is illegal to be drunk in charge of a cow!  Despite these strange animal related (ok, the kite one was extremely tenuous) laws, only New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland have actually banned the live boiling of lobster!

Lobster isn’t boiled alive just for fun.  Lobsters are host to a bacteria called Vibrio (the family to which Cholera belongs!).  These bacteria are killed off in the cooking process.  If the lobster dies before cooking however, almost immediately, the bacteria start to act on the flesh.  If the bacteria begin to excrete toxins in the lobster, these are not removed by the cooking process.

They can be frozen to prevent the activity of the bacteria.  The same bacteria is more commonly the cause of seafood poisoning via Oysters.  Oysters, usually eaten raw, have a ‘hotter’ reputation for food poisoning.  Unfortunately, due to the risk of making discerning diners sick, it’s generally considered best practice to boil the poor old lobster fellows alive!

Cockroach of the Sea

The lobster is pretty abundant around the globe.  They can live anywhere between 2 and 3000 metres, making them pretty easy to catch.  Keeping them fresh is the real challenge!

Among the oldest known cookbooks, from around the 1300s contains a recipe for lobster.  There is even a mosaic in Pompeii featuring a Spiny Lobster.  Spiny Lobster, is one of the group of things called lobster that isn’t, it doesn’t have any claws). Split hairs aside, from mid to late Roman period until the industrial revolution, only two types of people ate lobster.

People near the coast who had easy access to it to eat it fresh.  The other group were those wealthy enough to be able to afford the luxury of transporting lobster live.

So, very quickly lobster was established at both poles of the class divide.  If you were almost royalty, you could demonstrate your opulence with expensive fresh lobster from many miles away. 

Alternatively, if you were too poor to afford ‘farmed’ meats like poultry and beef then you might subsist on lobster.

In some of the earliest North American colonies on the East coast, it was not unusual for lobster to be washed ashore due in bad weather.  In these cases, lobster was sometimes used as fertiliser for farms.  It was also fed to indentured servants employed in the colonies.  Some sources say that as time went on, some indentured servants, who had contracts unlike chattel slaves, had contractual limits on how often they could be fed lobster!

A popular internet rumour spread a few years ago was that prison riots were set off due to the frequency of lobster on the menu!  While this remains an internet urban legend, it is at least true that the lobster was considered a pretty lowly beast, ‘the Cockroach of the Sea’.

I’m sure we’re all feeling pretty sorry for the humble lobster now and well we might.  Boiled alive or have its corpse devoured by bacteria, some choice!  Called mean names by hairless monkeys after 140 million years minding your own business.

Climate change and overfishing have affected lobster populations.  Conservation measures have seen numbers recovery quickly.  This means ‘the Cockroach of the Sea’ is not rare.  It didn’t get its value from scarcity like Caviar.

140 Million Years Waiting for a Train

While fresh lobster was already regarded as a delicacy when eaten fresh by the ultra-rich and becoming popular around New York and Boston, widespread opinion still frowned upon the lobster.  The industrial revolution would change all that.

The first US Passenger station was opened by the Baltimore & Ohio railway at Mount Clare in 1829.  Despite the B&O not reaching Ohio until 1839 from the beginning, luxurious passenger travel was one of the aims! 

As longer and longer journeys became possible, the idea of luxury eating became part of the landscape.  Pullman type luxury dining cars were commonplace by the 1880s.  By then competing railway companies needed to capture passenger attention while keeping costs down and profits up (some 1880 railway concepts may sound familiar).

The lobster’s time had finally come!  Cheap to acquire on the East coast yet easy to prepare fresh aboard hundreds of miles away onboard the dining car.  Lobster, as a luxury item, soared in popularity.

Combined with the advent of canning, rail travel allowed the lobster to gain widespread popularity that now eclipses it previous reputation.  Keen to promote their exotic delicacy, railways boasting of this exquisite cuisine, combined with its existing popularity in New York and Boston, spread the fame of lobster across North America. 

As with many things, where the US lead, others followed, and Lobster is almost universally acknowledged as elite cuisine!

Be More Lobster

What Lobsters know, and perhaps we are still to learn is that railways can change things for ever!  In these uncertain times, railway funding and investment may fluctuate.  But railways, like lobster will be around for a long time.

In the UK, there are plenty of variables, again, I won’t list them. But for my rail industry colleagues, I say a future without rail is practically unthinkable. 

While the pace of action on climate change could be faster, it seems the overall direction of travel is essentially greener!  The UK transportation network without a well-functioning railway is not a realistic option for any government.

Even technological advances such as Hybrid traction, ‘Maglev’, Hydrogen or full ETCS would require enormous investment and effort to introduce.  Railways and railway projects will be with us, in some form for quite some time yet. 

For me, I will continue to do my best day to day and be as prepared as I can for any changes. Relying on a sports coaching philosophy “Only worry about the things you can control”.  I won’t worry about too many ‘what ifs’.  I will try to be more Lobster and see where the rail journey takes me.  If it comes to a halt, I hope I will have the energy and space to focus on what I need to do next rather than having wasted that energy on endless possibilities.

I hope too, that being more lobster may help you cope with the stress and strain of the rail industry or at least my lobster story has provided you some light respite for five minutes.

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