IT WAS WITH THE GREATEST OF ANTICIPATION that I hopped into my car to head from Manhattan for the rocky coast of Maine. I had no real purpose other than to see and experience the state I'd chosen years ago for a sixth-grade report simply because it was the farthest point in my young, ethnocentric imagination from everything and everyone I knew in Southern California.
I'd written back then that the "pine cone state" bird was the chickadee and Augusta the capital. And, of course, I knew about Maine lobster. But I hadn't heard about what seems to be the culinary manifestation of the Maine way--a reflection of its no-nonsense sensibility, its deep respect for tradition, the simple, un-fancy and proud lobster roll.
The first time I heard the words "lobster" and "roll" together, the image that came to mind was of lobster baked into a sort of savory bun. In fact, this lauded epicurean icon of the rocky coast takes the edible equivalent of Dom Perignon and converts it into a humble Americana sandwich: a mayonnaise-and-celery-based lobster salad heaped inside a toasted hot dog--yes, hot dog--bun.
I've found lobster rolls at seaside shacks as far south as Cape Cod. But in Maine, the lobster roll is nothing less than an obsession. Everyone from motel clerks to gas station attendants to friends of friends who heard I was going to Maine told me their five favorite places to get one, the goal being to find the thing in its least-manipulated form. In Bar Harbor they even sell lobster rolls at McDonald's. Uh, huh. Or, as Mainers say, "ayuh."
I stopped in Bar Harbor to visit a girlfriend who grew up spending the Maine summers in a house that's been in her family for more than 100 years. (Not a phrase you hear often in California.)
I'd thought to pull on a pink sweater and my hair back in a low, preppy kind of ponytail in an effort to blend in. I drove into the long, curved driveway of the shingled turn-of-the-century "cottage" perched over a private, craggy cove. My girlfriend and her mother, both blond, both in white pants and pastel tops, stood to greet me. When I stepped out of the car, my girlfriend said, "Look at you! Such a 'Cali' girl!"
And then, of course, "Let's go get a lobster roll!" It seemed to slide so naturally off the tongue. I imagined her as a child, wading in the chilly waters on the sandless, stony beach, and all the lobster rolls she must have eaten on all the cool summer afternoons, and I remembered just how far away I was from home.
(Adapted from a recipe by Jill and Michael Leviton of Lumiere)
Large pot of salty water
3 11/2 pound lobsters
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup celery, diced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
4 hot dog buns
1/2 stick butter, softened
To cook lobsters: Drop lobsters into pot of salty boiling water. When water returns to boil, remove pot from heat and let sit for 15 minutes. Remove lobsters from water and allow to cool.
To remove lobster meat: First, wiggle "thumb" of claw, pull claw from body and crack using a nutcracker or small mallet. Entire claw should fall out. Between claw and body is a knuckle. Using same tool, crack and extract meat. For tail meat, grab body in one hand, tail in other, and twist to pull two apart. Reserve body, take tail, turn underside-up on a board, put one hand on top of other and press until it cracks, at which point it can be spread apart and tail meat pulled out in one piece.
Split tail meat in two lengthwise with knife. Remove vein. Remove body meat. Chill meat and chop into 1/3-inch chunks. Slather hot dog buns, inside and out, with butter, being careful not to split them completely. Set aside. In mixing bowl, toss together, preferably with your hands, lobster meat, mayonnaise, celery and salt. In warmed cast-iron skillet, toast buns on both sides. Heap generous portions of lobster salad into buns.