What's the most you've ever paid for a meal?
If you're like most Americans, that number probably has three digits. Not all of us can afford to dispense with $5,000 in order to fully experience the best cuisine that our nation has to offer. And of course, few things are seen as more obscene in today's economic climate than walking past the unemployment line to spend rivers of money on haute cuisine across the street.
The insult is made worse, however, when the trappings of luxury are applied to foods known for their populist origins. There are two front-runners in this arena at the moment in New York. One is 666Burger's $666 Doucheburger, a hamburger which began as a joke made from "gold leafed Kobe beef formed around foie gras, then topped with cave aged gruyere, truffle butter, lobster, caviar, and kopi luwak bbq sauce", and wrapped in three greasy $100 bills. The other, a $2,300 hot dog at the rooftop bar on 230 Fifth, counts onions caramelized in Dom Perignon and sauerkraut made with platinum oscetra caviar among its ingredients. The spiral-cut wiener costs as much as outfield season tickets to the Mets.
Yet even as we decry the indulgences of the super rich, those of us who have the means will still jump at the chance to enjoy a lobster dinner, or spring for that fancy goat cheese with the jam on top before a dinner party.
What makes a dish stand out so much that a (presumably) sane person would spend twice as much -- or ten times as much -- as she would on the meal's déclassé cousin? Is there something innately superior to foodstuffs like foie gras and truffle oil that justifies their astronomical cost? The answer begins with the rags-to-riches story of one of America's most famous delicacies.
Lobster: Poor Man's Protein
The first settlers to reach the North American continent were greeted by more than just a few local tribes of Native Americans. When they arrived, the shores that the Europeans landed upon were most likely knee-deep with lobsters.
The crustaceans were so plentiful that they would wash ashore in piles up to two feet high, and were often as large as 40 pounds . They could be easily harvested from the tide-pools and, when wrapped in seaweed and baked over hot rocks, provided an essential source of backup protein for the tribes during lean years and long winters.
The lobster's humble origins earned it a reputation as the "poor man's protein", and it was served ad nauseum to slaves, apprentices, and children for over a century. The practice was so common that it became standard practice for servants to negotiate riders in their contracts that guaranteed they would not be served lobster more than thrice weekly.
If you've ever looked closely at a lobster, you probably noticed that its anatomy is one of the strangest known to man. The brain is located in the throat, the teeth in the stomach, and the kidneys in the head. If you didn't know any better, would you be at all inclined to crack open a lobster's shell and swallow its tail? It was only in the 1880s, when lobster meat began to gain a cult following among diners in Boston and New York City, that the animal began to belie its reputation as a bottom-feeding sea creature fed to slaves.
Prices rose immediately, and by the time of the second World War it was considered a delicacy, and hence not subject to rationing. Those who profited most from the war effort devoured lobsters more quickly than ever, setting in motion the commercial lobstering industry that would eventually cause populations to reach dangerously low levels. Today, lobster sells to restaurants at anywhere from three to four dollars a pound (seasonal price changes do occur, but their effect does not travel far).
Diamonds in the Kitchen
The culinary history of lobster suggests that foods are not blessed with intrinsic value; rather, the price paid for them is based on a combination of desirability and rarity.
Diamonds are the prototypical example of a product that derives its value from scarcity. By the 4th century B.C., when they first appear in the archaeological record as markings made by drill bits found in Yemen, they were already considered a valuable material.
Even when technological advances allowed diamonds to be extracted at an unprecedented rate, they were almost all under the control of De Beers, whichmaintained a near-complete monopoly until recently (prices have plunged since). Throughout the twentieth century, De Beers artificially restricted supply at the same time they blitzed the market with ads fixing the rocks as symbols of commitment and luxury.
Truffles are the culinary equivalent of diamonds, so much so that the humble European mushroom was nicknamed "the diamond of the kitchen" by the early food critic Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The mushroom's flavor is subtle yet unmistakable, and has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity, finding its way into everything from chocolate to french fries.