It seems so odd and arbitrary that we only occasionally think about the history of the things around us, and only at the things that we deem "historical" in nature. A 19th Century church, an old family photo, these are things where their oldness is an essential feature in the collective imagination, and so we always consider their histories. Or we see something new that has a specifically antiquated design, or something in which we know the history of why it was built that way, or the intent of its inventor or designer, and we can tell ourselves the story of how this thing that we see came to be in the world. We might let the shape of our electrical plugs, the bright red of a Solo cup, go without comment that day. But sometimes the narrative emerges, uncoils, and becomes visible. And so it was recently, when the narrative came to me in the form of a lobster.
The story of how lobster became gentrified is one of the more popular pieces of kitschy American food lore, especially in the wake of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. What was once considered an inedible pest became a cheap protein and a standard meal in the colonial prison system before its eventual, full rehabilitation as a luxury food. Or perhaps you've heard about the six-foot lobsters that reportedly roamed the shores of Manhattan Island in the Colonial Era, like animal symbols of the hyperabundance of a supposedly virgin continent.
And when the lobster came to me, that crossed my mind. But what was far more interesting was the way in which it was served. The beast came with its claws already cracked, its insides splayed open and blended into a rich, creamy filling, lashings of egg yolk crystallized along the sides of the shell.
The name smacks of antiquity. The dish was named at Maison Maire in late 19th Century Paris in honor of a play, Thermidor, by Victorien Sardou, a titan in his time, but likewise now mostly forgotten. The play opened in 1891-- a time, known in popular memory, as the Paris of La Belle Époque, of Monet water lilies and boulevard flâneurs, but which was also a time of near-constant military intrigues, the Dreyfus Affair, the beginning of France's colonial incursions, and the far-right populism of General Georges Boulanger's revanchist political campaign, before Boulanger's suicide on the grave of his mistress several months after the opening of Thermidor. The play is the story of the Thermidorian Reaction, the 1794 French counter-revolution that lead to the execution of Maximilien Robespierre and the bloody purge of leftists in 1795, a subject so volatile that the government of Sadi Carnot banned the production at all state theaters... until Carnot's own assassination shortly afterwards, in 1894.
And the lobster thermidor has become something of a rarity. Once a luxury staple, it has faded into obscurity, along with other out-of-fashion dishes codified by Auguste Escoffier. Roux-thickened soups, sauces heavy with crayfish butter and meat glaze, breaded chunks of beef and veal, compound salads drowning under gelatin or mayonnaise, and grotesque, floral garnishes of puff pastry and vegetables have been relegated. We see their photos lurking in old cookbooks, with shimmery surfaces in oversaturated colors.
And so what I have on my plate is not just a dish, but a high-modernist relic-- a dish borne of the capital and excess and tumult of the 19th Century, enshrined in the ideology and iconography of the 20th, before being junked in favor of new tastes. A culinary Cadillac.