August 24th, 2016

The history of the lobster roll

I didn’t even know what a lobster roll was till I moved to New England, which was many decades ago. But I’ve never become a convert, although I’m well aware they’re a very popular item. You can hardly drive anywhere in New England, particularly in summer, without seeing stands all claiming to have the best one, or the most inexpensive one, or the biggest one, or all three.

But give me a lobster in the shell any day. I’ve got that Yankee ethic (adopted) that you should be willing to work for your lobster, not have it served up to you laced with gobs of mayo and stuffed into an insipid envelope of white bread.

Where I live, you can sometimes go to a stand and get two cooked chicken lobsters (that’s one-pounders to you folks from away) for between 15 and 19 dollars, with cole slaw. Why should I pay as much for a lobster roll that I can scarf down in almost two seconds flat? I like to draw out my eating pleasure, and a lobster in the shell certainly makes the eating take longer, and helps you to savor you meal.

Plus, I just like that red shell.

When my mother moved to New England she was almost ninety, and she always preferred a lobster roll. I forgave her due to her advanced age, although we were always willing to help her with a real lobster. But she insisted on the roll. I also once had a boyfriend who had a horror of lobsters—he said they were just big bugs—and preferred to see them out of their shells so he wasn’t reminded of the buggy nature.

Here’s an article from Downeast that goes into the history of the lobster roll:

A hundred years ago, nobody had even heard of a lobster roll — not even in Maine. According to John F. Mariani’s revered Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, the phrase first appeared in print in The New York Times in 1937, and Mariani name-checks possible progenitor restaurants in Milford, Connecticut, and Long Island, New York (though our chats with lobster roll cognoscenti suggest there’s more to the story).

BrevityFor most of the 20th century, a smattering of New England restaurateurs hawked the dish in relative obscurity. Then, at the tail end of the ’90s, a tiny restaurant in Manhattan, Pearl Oyster Bar, transformed the once-humble lobster roll into an object of culinary obsession — and a fleet of eager chefs, hyper-productive Maine fishermen, and savvy New York editors took over from there. By 2006, Bon Appétit had dubbed the lobster roll the dish of the year. It graced the cover of Gourmet in 2009. A 2010 New York magazine feature proclaimed its utter conquest of NYC, even as the lobster roll popped up on menus coast to coast, arguably usurping the classic shore dinner as Maine’s quintessential dish.

There’s much more at the link. Enough to tell me that no one knows where it really originated, and that it’s of relatively recent vintage. The article is in a magazine that promotes Maine, so it emphasizes the lobster roll as a Maine icon, but my experience is that it ranges far and wide and that Maine’s claim to it isn’t really all that valid.

Also, what’s with the celery bit? To me, lobster rolls don’t have celery. Too crunchy; ruins the smoothness and succulence. I’m putting up a photo that includes celery, but only because I like the rest of it, for obvious reasons:

Lobsters are sometimes cannibals, you know.

34 Responses to “The history of the lobster roll”

  1. Steve57 Says:

    I take it you don’t keep kosher.

    That is not intended as a criticism.

  2. Steve57 Says:

    I used to be part owner of a Japanese restaurant. My partner, the Japanese guy, controlled what was on the menu. And lunch was a set menu. If you ordered Bento box A you got A, B, you got B. Simple, no?

    Bento A came with a shrimp roll. A Jewish guy comes in, and wants Bento A (no, this isn’t a joke) but asks if we could substitute something for the shrimp.

    Have you ever tried to explain kosher to a Japanese chef? To this day he thinks I’m making this up.

  3. Stu Says:

    An enterprising couple make the trip every week from Kennebunk, Maine to Virginia Beach laden with lobster meat. During their 3 days here they manage to sell out with the rolls being the best sellers. We are spoiled here when it comes to blue crabs, but the Maine lobster is the ultimate!

  4. Steve57 Says:

    Blue Crab and Lobster will survive a cross country flight in the drop tank of an F-14. Fish will not. The drop in air pressure causes the fish to burst.

    Which really, really makes the maintainers who have to clean it angry.

    Fortunately they were fans of shellfish so we were able to make peace.

  5. Steve57 Says:

    I’m a fan of King and Snow Crab so I didn’t often encounter these difficulties.

  6. Artfldgr Says:

    And your boyfriend was right… they are technically in the same group as insects and other such critters – but not bugs… [even dictionaries get this wrong]

    true bugs have sucking mouthparts and generally feed on bug parts.. its a huge class of critter

    but insects, bugs, beetles, lobster and crab are all arthropoda…

    an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages (paired appendages). Arthropods form the phylum Arthropoda, which includes the insects, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans

    Crustaceans very large group of arthropods, usually treated as a subphylum, which includes such familiar animals as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill, woodlice and barnacles. Thanks to recent molecular studies, it is now well accepted that the crustacean group comprises all animals in the Pancrustacea clade other than hexapods. In other words, some crustaceans are more closely related to insects and other hexapods than they are to certain other crustaceans.

    the smallest is about a 10th of a mm…
    the largest (japanese spider crab) 12.5 feet

  7. mizpants Says:

    I can’t eat a lobster without making a hideous mess and leaving most of the meat in the shell. It makes sense to me that Neo would enjoy taking them apart. She does that to ideas too.

  8. KLSmith Says:

    I like lobster tail and lobster rolls that are very light on the mayo with nice big chunks of meat and I leave a lot of the bread behind. One is dinner and one is a sandwich. I’ve been to Maine three times and really enjoyed. It would be a blast to sail up the coast – if I sailed and if I had a boat! Instead we drove all the way up and got away from the crowded touristy parts.

  9. expat Says:

    I’m backin Maryland for a month, so I’m trying to catch up on the Internet and rest up from my Olympia Gold-winning trecks through airports. Stu, I know the bottom of the Chesapeake goes through Virginia, but you do know that while Virginia is for lovers, Maryland is for crabs.
    Anyway, I like lobster, but it’s not a part of my identity. A few years ago when we were in Princeton for 6 months, I went into a Whole Foods, where they had vegan crab cakes for sale. It was enough to make me want to start another civil war.
    I’ve gotta go now. I’ll be back later.

  10. parker Says:

    Far from the sea in the middle of the continent, we gorge on seafood when near salt water. Lobster is fine, but fresh scallops are irresistible.

  11. roc scssrs Says:

    Scallops, yes! When my wife and I visit the Jersey shore, our first stop is a fish market about 200 yards from the boats. We get our scallops there and saute them ourselves. Their resemblance to supermarket scallops is faint indeed.

  12. expat Says:

    There is also nothing quite like raw Chesapeake oysters. My husband and I were in Normandy years ago and went to have dinner at the beach. He ordered raw oysters and said they weren’t nearly as good as the ones from the Chesapeake.

  13. snopercod Says:

    At the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, they serve a yummy Lobster Cobb Salad. Mmmmmmm!

  14. parker Says:


    The seafood, including oysters, are yummy in Brittany and the coast towns are a delight. My favorite region of France by far.

  15. parker Says:


    Glad to hear another scallop fan’s endorsement of the mollusk. The best scallops we have enjoyed were in the Canada Maritimes. We have scheduled a 10 day trip to Nova Scotia and PEI in early October.

  16. expat Says:

    I’ with you. Brittany and western Normandy are great. We’ve travelled in the area quite a few times. It’s beautiful.

  17. miklos000rosza Says:

    Lobster has never done anything special for me. And as someone who cooked for my family from 6th grade on (because our mother was mentally ill) it’s hard for me to see the point of serving any food that can’t be eaten without difficulty right off the plate.

  18. Sharon W Says:

    Expat & Parker–Brittany is my favorite area of France. The coastline all along the way is so gorgeous. We had the good fortune to stay with friends of our daughter’s in-laws who own a home that is featured in many postcards of Brittany because the lighthouse is right outside. While we went to the coastal open-air market, Mr. M. stayed back and opened oysters from the beds there in the Golfe du Morbihan. Prior, they took us on a tour of the region and we visited the oyster beds. I was raised eating oysters (the Italian side of the family–in Chicago). These in Brittany were spectacular.

  19. parker Says:

    Sharon W,

    We have long time friends in Lesneven, Brittany, a nice town not far from the coast. Free lodging in France makes the airfare less painful. We fly into Paris and hop on a train then a bus to Lesneven or south to the area around Agen where we stay at the country home of another friend. Once you have seen Paris, you have seen Paris (not knocking Paris, but a few extended stays were enough). The country side towns and villages are the best part of France. People are down to earth and tend to consider Paris as ‘foreign territory’.

  20. Sharon W Says:

    Parker–Agreed. I was in Normandy this last May; stayed in Honfleur and traveled to the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach and Rouen. In ’96 we took our 3 kids, rented a gite in the Loire and put a thousand miles on a car touring the castles and cathedrals. Tremendous experience. Also have spent time in the south; Montpelier and Nice. We keep going back because we love it.

  21. Mac Says:

    Neo: “I like to draw out my eating pleasure…”

    I’m so happy to hear this. I’m almost always the last person in a group to finish a meal, and that’s the reason.

  22. CV Says:


    You might enjoy a Connecticut-style lobster roll. It’s warm chunks of lobster served on a roll with only warm butter to go with it. The cold lobster roll with mayo dressing is a Maine-Massachusetts thing:

    I agree with your ex, I’d rather not gaze upon the actual lobster while eating. Not an attractive creature (although what crustacean is?)

    I love all lobster rolls, but not the price. Seems to stay ridiculously high, even when lobsters are plentiful.

  23. CV Says:

    Also, lobster mac n’ cheese is now a thing.

    It is a tasty combination! Also generally expensive.

  24. This Guy In Maine Says:


    Think about the lobster roll as the Five Guys burger one stops for when one is getting home too late to buy good steaks and get a nice hot charcoal fire going for them. All of it is great, but I don’t want to be picking meat out of a bug at 9pm when I can get a solid heaping of lobster a teenager working over the summer has picked out of the thing.

    Now you want to talk about the right level of mayonnaise and the proper bread, we can have a real fight.

  25. This Guy In Maine Says:

    Also please delete CV’s mention of the Connecticut-style thing, that is a curse upon society 🙂

  26. Fred Says:

    Expired? Food waste in America

  27. Irene Says:

    Just back from Maine, which is very much part of our family identify, as are lobsters. No year is complete without multiple trips to Nunan’s and Port Lobster in KPort. Yum yum.

    As far as we’re concerned, a great lobster just needs butter and lemon. No rolls, no mayo, nothing else (except perhaps blueberry pie to finish).

  28. Steve57 Says:

    I will gaze on a lobster as long as it is bathed in butter.

    I don’t care who you are.

  29. SCOTTtheBADGER Says:

    CV, I don’t like mayo, so I shall eat Connecticut lobster rolls with you.

  30. Nick Says:

    Look at the face of that thing. That should tell you that it’s an insect. It’s not meant to be eaten. Two other ways you can tell that lobsters shouldn’t be food: the smell, and the taste.

  31. jms Says:

    We drove up the coast of Maine a few times in the late 1990s, and one of my favorite parts of the trip was actually stopping at McDonalds for a McLobster sandwich — which was just a lobster roll stuffed high with fresh, local lobster meat. For someone who only ever sees a lobster on fine china at a fancy restaurant, it was a preposterous luxury. And it was only about $6.00!

  32. Larry Says:

    Bug is the lobsterman’s slang for a lobster.

  33. Exeter Mom Says:

    Eating a lobster is a lot like making love. Some people rush to the best part, others begin with the legs and enjoy every part, generally arriving at the tail long after everyone else is finished. Chacun a son gout as they say in Brittany.

    Even better than a lobster roll is a lobster club. With bacon, heirloom tomatoes, avocado, and homemade tarragon mayo. Oh, and a nice white burgundy.

    The Weathervane chain used to have fried Maine lobster tails on the menu, and they were also superb. What a pleasant surprise.

    As the kids say, it’s all good, except for the celery.

  34. Steve57 Says:

    Exeter Mom you’re, …

    disturbing me.

    In a good way.

    Especially when you talk about starting with the legs, enjoying every part, and eventually arriving at the tail. I think I’m going to h3ll over that.

    But then if the Jewish dietary laws are binding still binding on Christians I’m going to h3ll over Lobster anyway.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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