Until you’ve had one, it’s almost pointless to describe the hormonal rush of neurochemicals that heighten your sense of taste, touch, and smell when you bite into a fresh lobster roll. The roll—if it’s done right—is still hot to the touch, crispy from a few lingering moments on the grill. The bread, sweet and doughy and lubricated with enough butter to wax your car, is an afterthought once you bite into the scoop of blushing lobster meat.
On its own, the tail and claw of a lobster has fewer calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat than your average chicken breast, but when dripping with mayonnaise, aioli, hot sauce, or clarified butter, seaborne lobster soars to the caloric stratosphere. Celery or scallions might be tossed with the chopped hunks of lobster tail and claw to give it texture, but at its heart, a lobster roll is a harmony of fat, carbs, and salty-sweet meat. In three bites, the roll is gone, leaving only a red-and-white checkered napkin rendered transparent by oil, a ring of mayo/butter emulsion around your lips, and a deep, intractable woe. “That’s it,” you think. “I’ve tasted ambrosia. And now it’s gone.”
Such was the experience of attending Tasting Table’s Fifth Annual Lobster Roll Rumble in New York, where 24 restaurants from around the country brought metric tons of lobster, butter, mayo, and bread in order to lay claim to the distinction of crafting America’s Best Lobster Roll. Armed with a notepad, a foam lobster claw, three fellow travelers—one of whom hoarsely informed us after his sixteenth roll that he was, in fact, allergic to lobster—and a stomach that had only seen a handful of macadamia nuts all day, your correspondent set out to determine what, exactly, makes the perfect lobster roll. Or, should his stomach burst, die trying.
America has perfected the art of high/low culinary culture. At Oscar after-parties, movie stars clutch In-N-Out burgers in one hand and gilded trophies in the other. New York’s 230 Fifth has crafted a $2,300 hot dog made out of 60-day dry-aged wagyu beef and topped with Vidalia onions caramelized in Dom Perignon. The most valuable object backstage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show isn’t the Millennium Bra—it’s a Krispy Kreme donut. But nowhere is the combination of luxury and low-rent gastronomy more on display than in the existence of a foodstuff composed of the fanciest animal protein in existence piled on top of a hot dog bun.
Despite the lobster roll’s cultural identification with Maine, where 125 million pounds of lobster meat is harvested from the continental shelf every year, the lobster roll first originated at Perry’s, a now-shuttered restaurant in Milford, Connecticut in 1929, according to John Mariani's Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. For obvious reasons, the concept of chopped lobster meat heated in melted butter and served on rolls was instantly popular, and over the decades became a staple of New England coastal regions where lobsters were cheap and plentiful. In states where fresh lobster expensive and rare, lobster rolls were the stuff of myth and legend until McDonald’s released the “McLobster” in 1993. It was a cataclysmic failure nationwide—lobster is hard to come by for the poor bastards in the Upper Midwest—but is still sold seasonally in the Maritimes for a few lucky Canadians.
The atmosphere at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea was redolent of these lobster palaces. A few veterans of the lobster roll scene casually strode from table to table, decked out in Hermès scarves and natty blazers, castaways from the Hamptons or Bar Harbor, but most of the several hundred attendees were the casually preppy kind of twentysomethings capable of forking over $165 to eat an unlimited amount of lobster. Imagine an East Hampton clambake that ended with a Bacchanal. $265 VIP tickets entitled us to palette-cleansing oysters and “custom Herradura tequila cocktails” drink rimmed with Old Bay seasoning, because the only thing that will make you more violently ill than eating 24 lobster rolls is mixing 24 rolls with oysters and tequila. We tried and failed to find the vomitorium.
At first, we flitted from table to table, hosing entire lobster rolls (and repeats!) with the hubris of youth. Your correspondent, who encountered his first lobster roll at age 21 and had partaken in no more than five ever since, was just happy to be there. Austin’s Dock & Roll Diner paired their roll with hot sauce (a simple, brilliant addition). Portland’s Eventide Oyster Co. rocketed to the top of our estimation by using a pork bun-style roll instead of the traditional “New Englander” —the sweetness of the bread perfectly underscored the sweetness of the lobster meat.
The line for The Clam Shack, a Kennebunkport institution and winner for the past two years, stretched across the entire floor of the Pavilion. The Mermaid Inn, located around the corner from your correspondent’s apartment in the East Village, turns out to have a fabulously simple lobster roll, a discovery his personal trainer will rue and his credit card company will celebrate. We’re pretty sure we saw Allison Williams a few times, but nobody ever caught her actually eating a lobster roll. We placed bets on who would be the first to vomit into one of the numerous cardboard garbage cans.
The name “lobster” comes from the Old English loppestre, a portmanteau of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, or spider. If you take a look at one, “spider-locust” doesn’t seem entirely off the mark —in fact, the preferred nickname for lobster along Maine’s Midcoast region is “bug.”
Lobsters are invertebrates whose single-chambered hearts pump copper-rich haemocyanin, which means that lobsters, like spiders and snails and their most stereotypical human fans, have blue blood. As lobsters grow, they moult their hard exoskeletons—often eating them—which means that they can reach astonishing sizes. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest lobster ever caught was in Nova Scotia, and weighed more than 44 pounds.
The amount of time since a lobster’s last moult is closely tied to both flavor and transport life—new-shell lobsters have paper-thin shells and incredibly sweet meat, but the delicateness of their shells mean that even transport from Maine to Boston frequently kills them, lowering their price. Old-shell lobsters can survive international shipping, but the meat is usually mealy and course. Anyone who thinks that they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between new-shell and old-shell lobster meat has never attempted to down 24 lobster rolls in a single sitting.
Lobsters as a foodstuff have gone in and out of vogue numerous times over the past four centuries. In 1620, Dr. Tobias Venner proclaimed in his Via Recta ad Vitam Longam that lobster was an aphrodisiac which “giveth much good and firme nourishment,” but that, as lobster “maketh a great propensitie unto venereal embracements,” one should be careful about overimbibing lest one walk away with a lobster-facilitated case of syphilis. Lord Byron once declared that “a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad & Champagne.” In the United States, however, the plentiful nature of lobster meant that it was considered a low-class food until the mid-1800s, eaten only by the poor, imprisoned, or insane. Feeding prisoners lobster more than once a week was illegal in some colonies, an offense on the same order as feeding them rat meat. When it was harvested en masse, it was frequently ground up as fertilizer.
With the invention of the lobster smack, a boat with open holding wells on the deck to keep the lobsters alive during transport, however, decapod dishes arrived on the fine-dining scene. Since it could now survive travel over longer distances, lobster became a decadent treat for the American upper class. The rise of lobster gastronomy gave birth to the “lobster palaces” of the 1920s, where the crème de la crème of the New York theatre scene would mingle with showgirls, hangers-on, and Old Money, dipping tails and claws in cream and butter while flirting with dancers and actresses. At these lobster palaces, a wealthy older man with a fondness for young women—today’s “sugar daddy”—was known as a “lobster.”
As we sampled lobster rolls from around the country, our pedestrian palates gradually grew more sophisticated. Some had too much mayonnaise (Robert’s Maine Grill of Kittery, Maine) some were a little too briny (The Grey Lady in the Lower East Side), and some suffered from too much experimentation (Betoney in Midtown), but it was lobster, we were hungry, and how often do you get to enjoy a capital-L Luxury Food in such quantities?
A young woman in a Lily Pulitzer dress dismissed her friend’s concern that a belly-button ring in the shape of an anchor would be trashy. “It can’t be trashy if it’s nautical.” We soldiered on.
Now would be the time to mention that the Lobster Roll Rumble is a charity event, with 10% of the ticket sales going to benefit Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. It is a worthy organization, considering that one in five American children struggles with food insecurity, a sobering statistic even when you’re not forcing yourself to lift yet another ingot of lobster, carbs, and bread into your open gob.
Better, though, to close your eyes and think of the children you were helping to feed than about the fate of the lobster with which you were feeding yourself. Eating lobster is as much about the shell-cracking, live-animal-boiling experience as it is about the taste. No, lobsters don’t have a cerebral cortex, but the scientific consensus is that crustaceans do feel pain, perhaps even more acutely than humans do (David Foster Wallace covered the issue of pain in delectable invertebrates famously and extensively). For the overly squeamish in our group, it was some consolation that the consumption of lobster rolls at least allows for the removal from view of the less, well, uncomfortable parts of crustacean preparation.
As the number of rolls consumed reached the high teens and our lobster-intolerant compatriot started to swell (“You know how when you’re allergic to something, your beard starts to itch?”) the butter had started to go to our heads.
We found ourselves turning away offerings of repeat tastes from venders we had enjoyed immensely only twenty minutes previously. “I don’t even want to take a bite,” we protested at one roll that seemed suspiciously overstuffed with celery. The mealiness of a local restaurant’s claw meat prompted us to dub it “the Lunchable Lobster Roll.” But it wasn’t until we tossed a half-eaten roll produced by one nameless restaurant (putting raw onion in a lobster roll should be punishable by hobbling) into the garbage that we realized that too much of a good thing turns you into a horrible brat. “The more I eat, the more horrible of a person I become.”
“I’ve become everything I’ve ever hated.”
“Who throws away lobster? I’m a monster.”
If familiarity breeds contempt, then overindulgence breeds snobbish connoisseurship. In the same way that passionate examination and sampling of wines or cigars or typefaces prompts snooty dismissal of Yellowtail, Gispert Coronas, and Comic Sans, the conspicuous overconsumption of the ocean’s most celebrated fruits de mer spoils your appetite for anything but the best. Don’t start every meal with a chocolate soufflé, and don’t eat a summer’s worth of lobster rolls in a single evening.
It was at this moment of personal reckoning that we discovered the table for Baltimore’s Thames Street Oyster Bar and our lives were changed forever. The meat glistened seductively with melted butter, piled high and steaming on top of a crisp, oily split-top bun. We were cautious, at first—the beautiful presentation of a roll from the North Fork of Long Island had belied a mealy, old-shell claw. But one tentative bite into the roll was enough. No mayonnaise, only butter, which had been absorbed, sponge-style, into the bun. We forsook all other rolls, all other foodstuffs. As the white wine-fueled Bacchanal raged around us, this was ambrosia.
After voting for Thames Street’s lobster roll—it would, rightfully, win the title of America’s Best Lobster Roll—we ventured out into the night, shirts and sleeves stained with butter, stomachs sore and smiles victorious. We’d accomplished our goal of eating all 24 entries without dying. We came. We clawed. We conquered.