No Two Rolls are Alike
Every great food town has to have a spirited debate on the preparation of its local specialty, complete with fierce competition and multiple claims of being the original inventor. Philly has its cheesesteak battles, New Orleans stages regular jambalaya and gumbo cook-offs, and the turf-war over who has the best Chicago hot dog is not without its share of bloodshed (or maybe that's just ketchup). Perhaps due to the ubiquity of the lobster along the coast, the entire state of Maine participates in the great lobster roll debate. It's safe to say that some aspects of the classic Maine lobster roll are agreed upon between dueling lobster forces. For one, the bread must be worthy of the succulently fresh lobster meat, and that means a freshly baked New England-style (aka split-top) bun with flat, crustless sides born to be buttered and grilled. Grilling the lobster roll bun invites flawless juxtaposition between the cold chunks of lobster and the warm buttery lobster receptacle.
Another time-honored ground rule that you must obey to be a contender in the Maine lobster roll wars is the strict prohibition of shredding the lobster—it absolutely must be divided into chunks, lest you risk devaluing the lobster roll to the level of the lowly tuna salad. Most in Maine agree that a lobster roll should be lightly dressed in mayonnaise, but there are pockets of drawn butter aficionados throughout the state as well as those stubborn strongholds of minimalist-devotees who live and die by the notion that the meat of a true lobster roll must be served unadulterated.
The lobster roll's origin story in Maine is as hotly contended as the recipe itself. Some say that Harry Perry first offered lobster rolls out of his Milford, Connecticut, restaurant in the 1920s; others claim the Nautilus Tea Room in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as the original purveyor of lobster rolls, while many Mainers view Bayley's Lobster Pound at Pine Point as the inventor of the famous seafood sandwich.i The true original lobster roll may have been lost to the annals of Maine history, but the entire state salutes its legacy by offering more versions of lobster rolls than the first sandwich inventor could have possibly imagined.
A lobster is a lobster, right? Classic tourist mistake. Every Mainer worth his or her (sea) salt has a preference between soft-shell and hard-shell lobster. Soft-shell lobsters are the result of the lobster's potentially long lifespan: Lobsters outgrow their shells and molt, resulting in a temporarily softened shell. Molting season occurs during the summer months for lobsters in Maine and marks a period of glee and revelry for soft-shell lovers throughout the state. When a Maine lobster sheds its old, hardened shell, its new shell is bigger than necessary, giving the lobster room to grow (cue flashbacks to your new too-big boots in elementary school). The lobster actually shrinks (shedding mostly water weight) in order to wiggle out of its tight-fitting hard-shell. Those who fall into the hard-shell camp cite the abundance of meat housed within their lobster of choice (approximately four to five ounces of meat for a one-pound hard-shell lobster versus two to three ounces of meat in a one-pound soft-shell lobster), but soft-shell enthusiasts will counter that their meat of choice is less waterlogged than the bloated hard-shell lobster.
Soft-shell lobster fans will tell you that hard-shell lobsters are much more difficult to crack open, making meat removal a major headache, while their favored soft-shelled crustaceans require a pared-down arsenal of tools: bare hands only. If you're basing your judgments on taste rather than preparation, both lobsters have unique characteristics. Hard-shell lobsters have a denser texture, with briny flesh that evokes the sea (makes sense, as the flavor molecules are permeated with saltwater), while soft-shell lobsters are slightly sweeter with a more tender texture. A true soft-shell lobster devotee doesn't mind spending more per pound on a (to their mind) superior product, while hard-shell enthusiasts contend that their lobster of choice offers more buck-per-shuck and comparable taste.
So we've covered the bread and the meat, but what about the fixin's? Almost everyone can agree that when it comes to lobster rolls, less is truly more. However, some outliers argue that a Maine lobster roll is incomplete without a sprinkling of diced celery; other dissenters swear by a dusting of smoked paprika. A brave few push the traditional boundaries of the lobster roll, adding elements of Asian fusion or experimenting with new bun options.