Shelling out for the Maine lobster roll

The culinary delight has become an annual tradition, just like our family trips to the Pine Tree State.
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The lobster roll boat at The Lobster Shack, Cape Elizabeth.

The lobster roll boat at The Lobster Shack, Cape Elizabeth.

You can’t keep a good bottom feeder down.

In my native Maine, lobster rolls are everywhere, from the roadside Clam Shack in Kennebunk, to a place called the Egg and I on Route 1 in Saco, even to McDonald’s (not lovin’ it).

In their classic formulation, lobster rolls feature lobster meat with mayonnaise and lettuce served on a toasted split-top New England-style hot dog bun.

The lobster roll was the cover story in the August 2016 issue of Down East (“The Magazine of Maine”), an oral history titled “The Rise (and Rise) of the Maine Lobster Roll.” In it, Michael Stern, co-author of the “Roadfood” guidebook, suggests that the lobster roll was invented in 1929 — in Connecticut!

‘Great Lobster Mystery’

But lobster is Maine, Maine is lobster.

Maine lobstermen have caught more than 120 million pounds of the crustaceans for four straight years. The 2015 catch was worth a record $495.4 million.

There seems to be no end to the lobster harvest and lobster consumption. In his deeply researched 2004 book about Maine history, “The Lobster Coast,” Colin Woodard talks about the “Great Lobster Mystery”:

“For nearly three decades, federal fisheries managers have warned that the lobster stock is so severely overfished that a tragic, codlike collapse is inevitable. Instead, Maine’s annual lobster catch has exploded, from 20 million pounds in the seventies and early eighties to around 50 million pounds today, and scientists … see little evidence that fishermen are hurting the lobster population.”

It’s still true more than a decade later, with the annual yield having more than doubled.

The egg and the lobster

My mother remembered having a lobster roll and chocolate milk at Sim’s Restaurant in Auburn, Maine, when she and my father were dating in the 1950s. I don’t think I had one until I was in my 30s, but they’ve become a welcome treat on our annual summer pilgrimages home, right up there with ice-cold Moxie and one of those Maine-invented whoopie pies (sorry, Pennsylvania).

On this year’s trip, we enjoyed lobster rolls at the classic Miss Portland Diner in Portland and the Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth, with its scarce parking but spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. The lobster boat at Lobster Shack, including fries and cole slaw, was $18.

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Miss Portland Diner’s lobster roll.

Of course, you can find Maine lobster, if not lobster rolls, far and wide. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is busy promoting the sale of lobster throughout the world, putting out news releases with headlines such as, “Maine Lobster Dives into Washington, D.C.”

As much as I enjoy a good Maine lobster roll, however, I don’t really want one unless I’m there to eat it.

Which makes me wonder about the prospects for the eatery in Saco that offers Chicago-style hot dogs, promising to bring the taste of the Windy City to Maine.

They might think about adding a lobster roll to the menu.

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