Maine’s favorite sandwich first gained national éclat in 2006 when Bon Appetit declared it “the dish of the year.” Foodies took even more note when, three years later, it graced the cover of Gourmet. Overnight, “our” crustacean concoction headlined menus from Massachusetts to Florida.
With all due respect to these Johnny-come-lately bibles of gastronomy, lobster rolls have been a Pine Tree state staple for decades. Alisson’s Restaurant in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square has been serving lobster rolls since 1973. This year, from June 27 to July 27, they actually sold 6,237 lobster rolls.
Whether eaten at the beach or on the back deck, at a food shack near the ocean or on a river dock at high tide, even at an upscale Ogunquit restaurant with white linen tablecloths, lobster rolls are Maine’s culinary crown jewel. For sure, not many self-respecting Mainers would THINK of ordering one in Hackensack, New Jersey.
Lobster rolls are the de rigeur welcoming meal for visiting relatives and out-of-state guests. My son-in-law, who frequently travels overseas for business, declares he “won’t leave Logan Airport for a long flight without first having a lobster roll.”
Truthfully, no one knows the exact moment a downeast lobsterman’s wife slathered a piece of white bread with mayo, slapped on leftover tail meat, and labeled it lunch. Even the words “lobster roll” didn’t appear in print until 1937 in The New York Times.
Most Mainers credit Bayley’s Lobster Pound at Pine Point in Scarborough as the provenance for this famous sandwich. Those “from away” insist the lobster roll was created by Harry Perry at his Milford, Connecticut restaurant in the 1920s. Keep in mind, however, that the Connecticut version featured lobster meat sautéed in hot butter which is not the protocol for traditional Maine lobster rolls.
Tongues have also wagged near forever as to what ingredients make the tastiest lobster roll. There’s hardly a housewife from Kittery to Skowhegan who hasn’t sampled a neighbor’s “secret” recipe at one point, and wondered, “What’s she got in there?”
The best recipes always start with fresh lobster meat. “Sea to table,” as it were.
Barnacle Billy’s in Perkins Cove, which typically sells 300 lobster rolls on a busy July Saturday, hasn’t changed its recipe in 56 years. Manager Stu says, “We use three parts of the lobster — the tail, the claws and the knuckles. A lot of other restaurants don’t do that. Then we add a little chopped celery, and a dab of mayo and horse radish sauce. We are traditional and don’t dabble with other stuff, like that Connecticut roll.”
At the Cape Pier Chowder House in Cape Porpoise, Wanda Daggett’s long-standing recipe showcases 3.5 ounces of lobster meat per roll. She adds one other ingredient. “I go light on the Hellman’s, and ONLY Hellman’s real mayonnaise — by eye. Nothing else.”
Some cooks enhance the 3.5 to 5-ounces of lobster meat that go into a roll with a dash of lemon juice. Others add a dollop of smoked bacon mayonnaise, a sprinkling of chopped chives, even a hefty tablespoon of Stonewall Kitchen’s Lemon Herb Aioli.
“And you never shred the lobster, like they do with tuna.” says Cape Pier’s Daggett. “It’s gotta be in nice chunks.”
Hands down, the preferred lobster roll bun is a New England-style top-split hot dog roll with crustless sides. “It would be blasphemous if we used a different roll,” says the owner of Ocean Roll, a red food truck stationed on Route 1 in Kennebunk.
As for prepping the roll, every chef consulted agreed with Kathy Gunst, noted chef and author of 14 popular cookbooks, including Soup Swap. Gunst says, ”The hot dog roll MUST be toasted in butter to give it a good golden brown crusty exterior and a soft interior.”
Side dishes definitely enhance the lobster roll. The most popular side are potato chips. Kathy Gunst suggests that “making the chips from scratch is preferable.” Others insist they’ll only eat Cape Cod Potato Chips or “some killer Torres chips” with their rolls. Cole slaw, French fries and dill pickles are other favored choices.
Pressed as to his recommendation for a favorite side dish, the manager of Barnacle Billy’s said, “Honestly? A rum punch. But actually, chowder is the best. They just go together.”
Many folk also opt for pickles and cole slaw. But when I asked my 15-year-old grandson Max what his favorite side dish was, he didn’t hesitate. “Another lobster roll, please.”
This week's blog is an edited version of an article I recently wrote for the TOURIST NEWS, a snappy, fun and informative paper here in York County, Maine, that I'm so pleased to write for!