Every food writer wants to be the discoverer of the Next Big Thing. Oh, to have introduced the world to Ibérico ham or foraged morels! No one would believe you broke the news, but at least you could fume in private. I would like everyone to note, therefore, that I am writing about the Fourchu lobster before it becomes a megatrend. I'm not the first to enthuse about this creature Peter Kaminsky penned an ode to the crustaceans in Departures magazine a couple of years ago. But Fourchu hasn't become a household name yet. And since I suspect it will soon, perhaps this is the time to look at how these things happen and why.
Like diamonds and Treasury bills, most foods have little inherent value. Some do: king crab is so dangerous to catch that there's an action-packed TV show about it. Alba truffles are exceedingly rare and difficult to find. But lobsters? Madison Avenue all the way. In a now celebrated 2002 essay, the late David Foster Wallace enjoined us to "consider the lobster." One thing we were invited to consider was how the animal had traveled, in a few decades, from being considered oceanic vermin akin to horseshoe crabs, a thing so low that it literally couldn't be fed to prisoners, to something that was, in Wallace's words, "posh, a delicacy, only a step or two down from caviar ... the seafood equivalent to steak." Wallace felt bad for the creatures, what with them getting boiled alive and all, but took their status for granted. The only problem, of course, is that steak, like lobster, is no longer intrinsically valuable. Red Lobster is a chain restaurant so cheesy that people use it as a shorthand for low-end dining. ("My boyfriend is so cheap that he proposed to me at Red Lobster!") Lobsters, once luxe, verge on the déclassé.
One reason is that, unlike so many forms of marine life, lobsters are flourishing. A shortage in 2007 was followed by a glut the next year; if ocean life is on the wane, lobsters seem not to have gotten the memo. They scuttle around the floors of silent seas, consuming everything they come across, as immune to mankind as the household bugs they so resemble. So to continue to justify a high price in restaurants, a distinction is needed. And this is where Fourchu enters the picture. Fourchu is a tiny fishing village in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. There are only 47 residents, mostly fishermen and their families, many of whom have been there for generations. The waters off the island are some of the coldest anywhere on the Atlantic seaboard, and they produce a lobster of superlative flavor and texture.
"The thing we are proudest of is the consistency of our product," fisherman Gordon MacDonald told me. "We don't have a long season, but pretty much every lobster we take is going to be really, really good." Kaminsky compares the difference between the Fourchu lobster and the Maine variety to the difference between California chardonnay and Montrachet. One is just sweet; the other full, complicated, mineralized in a word, better. And better in a way you have to be a good eater to appreciate. (If you're not a good eater, that's O.K.; the beautiful morels or vin jaune sauce or yuzu butter or whatever will guarantee that it tastes great to you because even ShopRite frozen cod would taste good with that stuff on it.)
Better still, the lobsters come with a great story. No restaurateur or chef worth his Himalayan salt will fail to conjure up the image of the tiny, colorful village, with its exotic, weather-hardened inhabitants speaking Gaelic and playing concertinas in a musky, ancient tavern. Nor would the fact that the lobster is only available for a few weeks a year be wasted on them. Get it while it lasts. And of course, as more and more great chefs take up the lobster as the must-have accessory of the season, a branded, artisanal product far beyond the reach of bib-wearing boobs, writers will broadcast the unusual name of Fourchu to the dining public's consciousness. Gastrocrats will crow about it in conversation that migrates to bloggers further down the food chain. Food editors and their blogging underlings will in turn do trend pieces on it, with a veneer of pseudo skepticism that barely masks their own haunted longing to try the dish and join the club. I had never tried, or even heard of, the things until they were introduced to me by Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who founded New York City's French Culinary Institute and who summers in Fourchu, where her grandfather was born. Now I lord my familiarity with Fourchu lobsters over my rivals in the manner of a socialite with an advance prototype of the new Miu Miu handbag.
Meanwhile, any number of incredibly hideous-looking, and incredibly delicious, marine arthropods will continue to appear on great tables, minus the hype and the branding. A spiny lobster from Brittany, a rock lobster from the Florida Keys, a crayfish from coastal Louisiana: they're all basically giant sea insects, which would surely inspire screams of horror were they not filed under the rubric of regional seafood dishes. (What is a lobster but a flaccid scorpion?) Are these crustaceans any better than a Fourchu lobster? Or their less exotic harvesters any less hardworking?
Maybe, maybe not. But as with any dish you buy in a restaurant, your answer has more to do with how we live in society than what the flesh tastes like, denuded of hype and butter. The path from Fourchu to fame seems likely to prove that. The ocean floor isn't, it turns out, the weirdest terrain a lobster has to navigate.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.