Serving Up Maine on a Plate

July 23, 2015 1:30 pm Last Updated: September 8, 2015 7:32 am

It takes all of five minutes for me to encounter “the debate.”

Walking down Congress Street in the heart of Portland, Maine, I run into a group of five men. They’re smartly dressed—each one in a well-fitted blazer and dress shirt—standing outside a local bank. I may have just arrived in the city, but I can already tell from their accents that they’re local.

Under the warm summer sun, the men begin to discuss what they’d like to eat. The talk naturally turns to lobster rolls, the beloved New England sandwich that borders on regional obsession here. One suggests a popular diner down the street. Almost aghast, his friend turns to him and declares, “no way, they use mayonnaise.”

It’s a sign of things to come.

I’ve traveled to Portland in search of the city’s best lobster roll. The sandwich’s reputation precedes it here, and I soon see why. From high-end restaurants to roadside shacks, lobster rolls are plentiful. Portland may have once been named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit magazine, but in these parts, the humble lobster roll is still king.

That’s where the agreement ends. The debate over how to make a lobster roll is almost as old as the sandwich itself. It can get pretty intense. Do you use butter or mayonnaise? Should the lobster be served cold, or hot? What kind of bun is best? The debate is so fierce that one local bakery keeps its buns hidden behind the counter, available only by special order.

The truth is, there are no bad lobster rolls in Maine. Some are very good, others are great. The one constant is the succulent lobster meat, often caught that morning. My very first roll includes ingredients favored by trendier eateries. In this case, cucumber, mint, and jalapeño. It’s delightful. Light and fresh, the jalapeño gives it a nice kick. But for lobster roll purists, it borders on blasphemous.

Lobster boats in Portland, Maine. (Maine Office of Tourism)
Lobster boats in Portland, Maine. (Maine Office of Tourism)

Determined to understand the appeal, I head to the experts. Maine Foodie Tours offers locals and tourists guided tours of the city’s vibrant food scene, and the opportunity to sample some of its culinary delights. Its Lunchtime Lobster Crawl is sure to point me in the right direction.

My guide is Christopher Papagni, a man who knows food. As the former executive vice president of the International Culinary Center in New York, Papagni has worked with such culinary heavyweights as Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain.

Our first stop is the Harbor Fish Market, right on the water’s edge. Fishermen have been selling their catches here for more than 100 years. The building itself is pretty dilapidated—it certainly looks its age—but inside is where lobster rolls are born. The chalkboard on the wall displays the ever-changing market price of lobster per pound, determined by the day’s catch.

Standing outside the market, among rows of old lobster traps, Papagni explains the lengths that Maine goes to in order to keep its lobster stock sustainable. There are heavy fines for harvesting a female lobster if her eggs are showing, and for young lobsters that haven’t had a chance to reproduce yet.

“Instead of being known for corruption, we’re known for sustainability,” Papagni said. “You can eat it guilt-free. It’s so smart.”

Harvesting lobsters. (Maine Office of Tourism)
Harvesting lobsters. (Maine Office of Tourism)

It’s no wonder. Last year alone, the state’s fishermen hauled in a whopping $457 million worth of lobster, an all-time high. In Maine, the little red crustacean is big business.

But economics aside, there’s something else at play here. Ask Portlanders about their lobster roll of choice, and while they may all tell you something different, they all share an unmistakable pride in the sandwich. It’s like asking parents which child is their favorite.

It’s not until I stop by the Portland Lobster Company that I truly begin to understand the lobster roll. Located right in the city’s working port, The Portland Lobster Company is a local favorite. In fact, earlier this year, its roll was voted best in the city by a local newspaper. In the summer, they’ll serve nearly 500 lobster rolls a day.

With a giant waterfront seating area and live music, it’s easy to see why this place is so popular. It’s late afternoon when I arrive, and a cool, earthy ocean breeze has just begun to embrace the patio.

Of course, I’m here for the sandwich. This one is as traditional as it gets: fresh meat from a one-pound lobster, brushed with sweet butter, stuffed into a toasted New England split-top bun.

“There’s absolutely nothing here that isn’t local,” explains general manager Ethan Morgan, who has joined me on the patio. I have to admit, I have trouble listening, distracted by how well the butter brings out the lobster’s natural sweet flavor.

“It’s the staple lunch,” Morgan said. “If you grew up anywhere near the coast, you had lobster roll. A lot of people had peanut butter and jelly as a kid. Here, the lobster roll is what you remember about your childhood.”

That’s when it hits me. The city’s best lobster roll can’t be found in any restaurant or seafood shack. It comes from somewhere much deeper. It’s the one your mother made for you and your friends as you spent curious summer afternoons exploring the beach. It’s the one in your heart, not on your plate.

And there’s no arguing with that.

Chris Mallinos is an Ottawa, Canada-based journalist whose work has appeared on six continents and in seven languages. He can be reached at www.chrismallinos.com.