The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.
This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime.
Lobster history is not new news to most Mainers or many New Englanders. Most people know about its “cockroach of the sea” to riches story. Once known as poor man’s food, this crustacean has risen from cockroach of the sea to a hot commodity. A lot of this “take off” is centered in Maine and occurred during Margaret Chase Smith’s lifetime, consequently influencing her recipe collection.
Lobsters were once so abundant along the coastline of northern New England that eating lobster was a sign of poverty. In the 1600s, it is rumored that lobsters washed up in two-foot piles after storms (History 2018). Native Americans used lobster to bait their hooks because of their availability (Willett 2013). Collected from the shoreline or speared in shallow water, lobster was eaten dead at this time. By the 1820s, Smackmen collected live lobsters using special wells in their boats that circulated sea water. Burnham & Morrill founded the first lobster cannery in 1836, the cans sold for one-fifth of the price of their Boston Baked Beans (DeBenedictis 2015). The growth of the railroad helped lobster find an audience outside of coastal areas (Willet 2013). By the 1850s canned lobster was being served as a side in salad bars. Around the same time, fishers switched to using lobster traps because lobster was becoming less plentiful in shallow waters.
People would travel to the coast to enjoy fresh lobster, baffling many native New Englanders. For the coastal state residents, lobster still epitomized cheap, lower class food. Chefs discovered in 1876 that cooking live lobster “unlocked” many flavors. Live cooking became an instant hit and almost immediately led the creation of the first Lobster Pound in Vinalhaven, Maine. This was a place for local fishers to drop off their lobsters which would all be shipped live together in large batches. This centralized shipping and increased time fishers could be out.
According to rumors, Lobster Newburg was invented in 1876. The popular theory begins in Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City. Ben Wenberg created the idea for and gave his name to the dish. Allegedly, an argument with the restaurant owner led to changing the dish’s name to Newburg (What’s Cooking 2017). The sauce used in Lobster Newburg is Terrapin sauce, used frequently in recipes before 1876 (Whitaker 2010). The first published recipe for Lobster Newburg is in Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, by the principal of the School of Cookery in New York, copyrighted in 1887. This recipe calls for a four-pound lobster and two types of alcohol (Parola 1887).
Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, Maine (about seventy-five miles from the coast) in 1897, just a decade after the publication of Miss Parola’s recipe. Maine has a two-sided history with lobster. George H. Lewis shows the role of class in the acceptance of lobster with the differences between “summer people” and permeant residents in Maine. In his article, “The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class,” Lewis argues the symbolism of lobster largely depends on socioeconomic factors. The summer people are often upper-class visitors who cultivated the idea that Maine lobster was an icon of the state. They helped drive up demand and prices and brought about a tourism boom. Year-round residents in some parts of the state often have a very negative view of lobster still. Lobster was trash food in the beginning for them, and now that prices have risen, they can barely afford what used to be the cheapest protein (Lewis 1989).
It is unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster due to Skowhegan’s distance from the coast. However, there are several recipes for lobster (as well as other seafood) in her collection, including a recipe for Lobster Newburg on her Senate stationery that she kept to respond to recipe requests. Smith regularly received requests specifically for lobster recipes, likely because of the association between Maine and lobster. In 1968, the editor of the forthcoming Republican Cookbookcontacted Smith requesting her “favorite way of doing lobster.” Smith responded with her recipes for Lobster Rarebit and Lobster Casserole which the editor responded were precisely the “regional specialties” they desired to feature (Margaret Chase Smith Library).
Smith frequently promoted Maine lobster. In addition to her recipes, she showcased the crustacean at social events. In 1946, she attended the Maine State Society’s annual Lobster Dinner, a continuing tradition since 1945. In 1955, during a vacation in the state, Smith hosted President Eisenhower for a steak and lobster bake at her Skowhegan home. It is likely Smith served lobster to guests in Washington, D.C., possibly because her visitors would have the connotation of lobster meaning Maine. Recipes in her collection using both canned and fresh lobster would allow her to select a recipe based on her location or her schedule – one recipe for lobster newburg using canned lobster was annotated by Smith “quick.” As a busy senator, she likely valued these recipes that were timesavers and accessible. While it’s unlikely Smith grew up eating lobster, she embraced the ingredient as increasingly emblematic of the nation’s perception of Maine food and promoted lobster consumption to help the industry grow.
Nicole Ritchey is a fourth-year Marine Science major with a minor in computer science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine.
DeBenedictis, E. (2015). Lobster’s Delicious History is completely Insane. Munchies, Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xy7vzw/lobsters-delicious-history-is-completely-insane
(2018). A Taste of Lobster History. History,Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/a-taste-of-lobster-history
Lewis, G. H. (1989). The Maine Lobster as Regional Icon: Competing Images Over Time and Social Class. Food & Foodways, 3(4) 303-316.
Parola, M. (1887). Lobster Newburg. Miss Parola’s Kitchen Companion, Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=X34EAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA225&dq=lobster+newburg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hwTpT7SqEqzs2AXOkJz5DQ&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=lobster%20newburg&f=false
Smith, Margaret Chase. (1940-1973). Recipe correspondence. Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library, Skowhegan, Maine.
What’s Cooking America. (2017). Lobster Newberg History and Recipe. What’s Cooking America, Retrieved from https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/LobsterNewbergHistory.htm
Whitaker, J. (2010). Who Invented…Lobster Newberg? Restaurant-ing through history, Retrieved from https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2010/04/19/who-invented-lobster-newberg/
Willett, M. (2013). The Remarkable Story of How Lobster went from being used as Fertilizer to a Beloved Delicacy. Business Insider, Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-history-of-gourmet-lobster-2013-8