Why is Lobster So Expensive? 6 Pricy Foods That Used to Be Dirt Cheap

Close up of a basket of cooked lobsters on a beach
EJJohnsonPhotography/Getty Images

For me, food presents the hardest challenge when I’m trying to save money. Like many other spendthrifts, I have expensive tastes when it comes to food. If I buy bargain beef, it’s not without a longing look at the prime cuts in the case.

Recently, though, I’ve realized it’s all in my mind. Food is based on trends, and throughout history, it’s the penny pinchers who have been ahead of the curve. Whether it was chefs trying to save money in the kitchen, families scraping together leftovers or cooks finding creative ways to use throwaway ingredients, some of today’s most sought-after and expensive foods started out cheap — or even free.

Here’s a taste of a few now-fancy foods that began as food for folks on a shoestring budget.

1. Lobster

Running $30 or more per pound in large cities, a simple meal of one plump lobster and a side of drawn butter can cost over $60 per person.

But it wasn’t always this way. Lobster was once used to feed the poor, and rumor has it, as prison food. It was once considered a bottom feeder that was so readily available it had nearly no value. In fact, someone told me their mother remembers identifying the poor people at school because “they all had lobster sandwiches, and the rich kids had bologna.”

However, high demand and overfishing in the late 1800s and early 1900s coupled with a switch to multi-level harvesting processes contributed to the spike in lobster prices and consumers crowning it a delicacy.

2. Kale

top down view of kale
Scott Webb/Unsplash

Over the last five or so years, kale’s overwhelming adoption as a must-eat health food staple has made it so ubiquitous that it’s easy to find on menus and shelves all over the country, from Michelin-starred restaurants and Whole Foods to McDonalds and Walmart.

But did you ever wonder what the 2,000-year-old leafy green was up to before it rocketed to superfood superstardom and dragged its price tag up with it?  

Prior to helping raise the price of salads and smoothies or gouging wallets with price tags of $8 for a 2.5-ounce package of kale chips or $3.50 for a raw bunch, kale found itself in a far less celebrated position.

You may remember bunches of fluffy kale leaves neatly used as a throwaway garnish on salad bars across the country. Word on the street is that even as a late as 2012, Pizza Hut was the country’s largest buyer of kale, which it used for this very purpose.

3. Brisket

barbecue ribs with brisket, fried okrra and  cole slaw on tray
rez-art/Getty Images

Anyone who has devoured a plate of delicious, piping-hot, crusty barbecue brisket knows it doesn’t come cheap. In Austin, folks wait in line for hours and pay $22 a pound to taste the 18-hour-smoked brisket from Franklin Barbecue.

Generally, meat markets had a hard time selling tough and fatty cuts of meat, like brisket, due to the effort required to tenderize them. This sometimes resulted in these unpopular cuts getting tossed in the trash, given as scraps to animals or sold as cheap cuts to the poor, who would soften them in slow-cooked stews, marinades, smokers or via hand-pounding.

In the 1800s, the Czech and German immigrants brought a different tenderizing approach to Central Texas, and an expensive legend was born. Whatever bits of fresh meat didn’t sell, they would coat in salt and pepper, smoke over wood and sell the next day as barbecue.

Today, brisket is so popular that barbecue spots all over the country have a hard time getting their hands on enough of it. Some restaurants have even considered selling brisket at market price, like lobster, to keep up with the escalating prices.

4. Keshi Yena

Keshi Yena is a traditional, casserole-like dish from the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao. It’s a bubbling cauldron of melted cheese, meat and vegetables that fetches around $20 to $25 per serving on restaurant menus.

But this dish has rather dark and humbling history, and was never meant for the rich. Keshi Yena was a free or very cheap makeshift meal island slaves threw together. They would toss table scraps into emptied Edam cheese rinds and bake them into a hearty meal.

Ironically, today, the lengthy and particular process required to make a delicious, gooey pot of Keshi Yena — and the fact there are no longer empty Edam rinds just laying around —  are part of the reason the dish has gotten so expensive.

5. Sushi

a spread of sushi
bady qb/Unsplash

Sushi may not be as exotic or expensive as it was in the 1980s, but it’s not cheap. In fact, “Sushinomics” says sushi has gone up in price by 2.3% in just the last year.

Though sushi’s history stretches back at least 1,800 years, the closest version to what we eat now was first sold in Japan as far back as the 19th century. And by the early 1900s, street stalls sold sushi as a fast and cheap food on the run, much like today’s hot dog stands in New York City.

Sushi prices began to soar after these street stalls closed down to make way for a more sanitary, restaurant-like experience. Today, single pieces of sushi sell for up to $12, and rolls can rake in more than  $25, depending where you dine. Not bad for fast food.

6. Oysters

hands holding oysters
Charlotte Coneybeer/Unsplash

Oysters may just be the slickest of all success stories. These bivalves are easy to catch but hard to open and end with a small reward that’s gone in a single gulp, making them hardly seem worth the $2 to $4 per oyster we now pay. Two dozen oysters are more likely to put a dent in your wallet than your appetite.

Unlike other foods on this list, the rich and the poor consumed oysters During colonial America, New York City’s poor lived primarily on oysters, the cheapest protein they could find.

But as we know, high demand often leads to lowered availability. Thanks to extensive overfishing of some American oyster beds, polluted oyster estuaries, and high import costs, we’re lucky to suss out a decent $1 oyster happy hour today.

So, next time you’re sitting at home, cooking up a money-saving meal or cost-cutting your way through the grocery aisles, don’t fret! Remember, today’s food deals are tomorrow’s gourmet dishes. Bon Appetit!

Katherine Alex Beaven is a travel and food writer published in Time Out New York, Munchies, Edible Manhattan, Business Insider, USA Today and more. She has a weakness for flight deals and mac ‘n’ cheese. Follow her on Instagram to see where she is and what she’s eating.