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The Great Maine Lobster Roll Debate

Maine lobster is celebrated from sea to table throughout the state, but that doesn’t mean the tasty crustacean doesn’t come served with a side of controversy. Like every iconic local dish (the Philly cheesesteak, the Chicago hot dog, or New Orleans’ pride in its jambalaya and gumbo), the Maine lobster roll sparks spirited debate over how it should be prepared, who makes it best, and who made it first.

Some ground rules

There are some aspects of the classic Maine lobster roll that all sides agree upon. For one, the bread must be worthy of the succulently fresh lobster meat. That means a freshly-baked, split-top bun with flat, crustless sides made to be buttered and grilled. There is also a strict prohibition against shredding the lobster: it must be divided into chunks. This is a Maine lobster roll, not tuna salad. But that’s about all the common ground there is.

The dressing debate
Most Mainers agree that a lobster roll should be lightly dressed in mayonnaise. There are, however, pockets of drawn butter supporters throughout the state. Some argue that a Maine lobster roll is incomplete without a sprinkling of diced celery or dusting of smoked paprika. And then there are the militant minimalists, who live and die by the notion that the meat of a true lobster roll must be served unadulterated.

Hard- versus soft-shell sell

In a debate that goes beyond the lobster roll, every Mainer worth his or her (sea) salt has a preference between soft-shell and hard-shell lobster. Soft-shell lobsters (abundant in summer) are simply lobsters that have outgrown their shell and molted, resulting in a temporarily softened shell. Connoisseurs of hard-shell lobster prefer its denser texture, with briny flesh that evokes the sea from which it came. Soft-shell enthusiasts are willing to pay a bit more for the slightly sweeter meat and more tender texture of those lobsters who have shed much of their water weight to wiggle out of their cramped shells.

Origins shrouded in mystery

Hard-shell or soft, butter or mayonnaise, the lobster roll's origin story is as hotly contended as the recipe itself. Many Mainers view Bayley's Lobster Pound at Pine Point as the inventor of the famous seafood sandwich. Then there are the out-of-state claimants. 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.

The origins of the original lobster roll may be lost to the annals of Maine history, but the entire state continues to salute its legacy by offering more versions of lobster rolls than the first sandwich inventor could have possibly imagined.

To dig deeper into the lobster roll debate and learn more about Maine’s iconic crustacean, visit mainequarterly.com/lobster.

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