Ralph Gardner Jr: Going Overboard For Lobster
What is it about lobster rolls? A trip to Maine would seem incomplete without one of these tasty treats. About the only thing that can compete on a consistent basis in the counter food category is a charcoal-grilled cheeseburger and fries.
And when I say a trip to Maine would be incomplete without a lobster roll – my wife and I spent a few days there last week -- I don’t mean one roll over the course of a visit, but a new lobster roll every day.
I’m not foolish enough to believe that two a day might be sustainable, but only because I haven’t tried.
On the other hand, a lobster roll for lunch and a lobster dinner is entirely doable. Lobster happens to be impressively versatile.
One night we went to a dinner party at my friend Pedro Leitao’s house. He rents a place in Seal Harbor, Maine on Mount Desert Island for the month of July and has for many years. Lobster isn’t the only or even the main draw, no pun intended, on a vacation in the Pine Tree State. By the way, isn’t it about time they change the name to the Crustacean State? Maine has other things going for it -- even though it’s possible to overlook them if you’re as obsessed about lobster as I am: among them hiking, sailing and a delicacy to the landscape embodied in the relationship between pine forests, bouldered cliffs and ocean that has an entirely calming effect on the psyche.
But first things first: Pedro served lobster in a curry sauce for dinner. Also, a delicious lobster soup. Delightful as both were they were too elaborate to count towards my lobster quota.
To count a lobster must be served in its virginal, or nearly virginal state. We can quibble whether a lobster roll, which typically comes in a nearly one-to-one ratio of lobster to mayo, passes that test.
By the way, as simple as it is, it’s as easy to get a lobster roll wrong as it is to get it right. The first requirement is that it be overstuffed. Any establishment that stiffs you on the amount lobster, especially tail meat, probably ought to be prosecutable.
But the reason I mention Pedro, besides the fact that he’s a superb cook and an even better host, is that I discovered one of the first things he does when he arrives in Maine is purchase a hundred pounds of live lobster from a local lobsterman.
And you think I’m obsessed. He has a lobster crate that he hangs off the side of his boat and whenever he needs a lobster, or thirteen of them in the case of the dinner that my wife and I attended, he goes out to the boat and retrieves them.
I assumed he buys in bulk because it’s cheaper that way. But he told me he only saves a dollar a pound. He does it for the convenience of having lobsters whenever he needs them – though some would probably argue that having to maintain a colony of lobsters and taking a dingy to your boat every time you need a few doesn’t connote convenience.
I think he does it mostly for the sense of well-being -- knowing you’re covered in a crisis.
The first time I had lobster was at David Lamb’s house in maybe fifth grade. I assumed I’d dislike it because it looked red and weird and had claws. But the meat, dipped in liquid butter, tasted like a combination of chicken and cumulous clouds. And I’ve been an avid fan ever since.
While the delicacy is synonymous with Maine, the most reliably overstuffed lobster roll I get is at a place called Mary Fish’s Camp in Greenwich Village. The problem is that the indulgence will cost you approximately $40, which is about $20 more than I’m typically prepared to pay for a lobster roll.
Though Mary’s comes with almost inhalable string fries.
Sides are an important consideration when ordering a lobster roll. A lobster roll without French fries feels woefully incomplete. Cole Slaw is also pertinent.
I faced a dilemma on this trip when I ordered a lobster roll at a restaurant called the Docksider, since my roll included only one side. I avoided catastrophe by ordering the fries and charming the waitress into slipping me some cole slaw.
I left her a handsome tip, though obviously nowhere near what she’s worth.
Our trip kicked off with a lobster pie at a place called the Maine Diner in Wells.
The dish was as heavenly as I remembered it from my last visit, a couple of decades ago. My only regret is that it took a full forty minutes from the time we crossed the state line before I tasted my first lobster.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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