There may be no meal more memorable than lobster enjoyed on a wharf piled high with traps and the sea at your feet.
All photos/art by Sara Gray
For most of us, the first time is when we’re kids. After a full-blown day on the coast, prickly with sunburn, the saline scent of the waves stuck high in your nose, you pile into the back of the car for the drive to the lobster shack. You’ve already declared your intention to order a whole lobster dinner, but in truth you’ve never touched a lobster, dead or alive, and you’re not sure you want to. But you certainly aren’t going to order the hot dog like your baby brother.
The road ends at a cove, evening light flickering off funny squarish boats bobbing in the harbor; on the dock, a tiny shingled hut fronted by a few picnic tables. Where you come from, it’s the kind of place that dispenses ice cream. Curiouser and curiouser.
Walking up to the window to order, you pass a few scarlet specimens hulking on diners’ plates, and the deflating truth sets in: No way can you grapple with this sea monster. The humiliation of the hot dog looms. But then a surprise option presents itself: the lobster roll. Such a thing is possible? The bug without the armor? The kudos without the claws? It arrives, pretty pink chunks piled impossibly high on a bun, not a single fleck of green to mar the perfection. You bite into it, and your world is never quite the same. Frankly, you didn’t know anything from the sea could taste so sweet.
From that moment on, you’re gone. Summers will spool out as this place burns itself into your memory. You’ll discover boats, bowlines, beer. You’ll graduate, finally, to full lobster dinners. You’ll learn how to suck every sweet morsel from appendages. You’ll wear a lobster bib like a badge. You’ll come to love this place and the way it helps you orient your life. And it all begins with the lobster roll, that gateway drug to a lifetime of coastal addiction.
Lobster shacks string themselves along the New England coast like a network of trading posts where we landlubbers come to traffic with those trappers working the watery frontier. Although a few establishments are the top-down creations of restaurateurs hoping to cash in on lobster mania, the best ones began life as an extension of a lobster boat. Lobsterman starts selling live lobsters from his boat; lobsterman sets up a pot to cook lobsters for folks who can’t do the deed themselves; a cooking shack is hammered together; picnic tables spring up like toadstools.
The rest of the evolutionary path is predictable: corn and potatoes boiled with the lobsters, a roll option, Porta-Potties, a fry shack for clams and french fries, hamburgers and hot dogs, indoor seating, indoor plumbing, ice cream, credit cards, a liquor license. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but I’m drawn to the joints that, like the lobster itself, stayed in some primitive yet highly functional form.
There you have Red’s Eats, the 800-pound gorilla of lobster shacks. Red’s is basically a trailer with a striped red-and-white awning holding down a postcard-perfect square of real estate in bricky Wiscasset, Maine, where U.S. 1 slopes down to the Sheepscot River. Each day from April to October for the past 60 years, Red’s has handed hundreds of lobster rolls out its little window, each hewing to the proper formula: buttered and toasted bun, overflowing with big chunks of lobster meat—more than a lobster’s worth—held together by the tiniest hint of mayo. For this and an iced tea, fork over a $20 bill. Do not hang around for change.
As Red’s demonstrates, you don’t have to do much to get a lobster roll right—but you can do so many things to get it wrong. Skimpy lobster rolls are depressing, even if they save you a few bucks. Miracle Whip mires abound. An untoasted bun is a disaster. Melted butter is gilding the lily. The uppity places may try to foist whole-wheat rolls on you, or, worse, sauces. All this is to be avoided—as is Red’s itself, for although the roll is glorious, the hour-plus wait and the fuming traffic are not. (Insider’s tip: Go at 10:30 p.m., just before it closes, for a late-night lobster roll in blissful isolation.)
For a proper shack experience, get away from U.S. 1 and turn toward the sea until the road ends. The air must be briny. You should almost be able to touch the moorings. If the shack has a pile of traps beside it and a dock in the back where the lobster boats unload their catch, all the better.
The purest expression of lobster shackness I know is Round Pond Lobster Fishermen’s Co-Op, perched halfway down Maine’s Pemaquid Peninsula on Round Pond, a harbor straight out of Robert McCloskey. The weathered gray shack sits on a weathered gray dock piled with weathered lobster traps. Throughout the day, lobsters arrive right on the dock, and a few of them go into the Round Pond cooking pot. Round Pond serves lobster, steamers, and nothing else. Want a drink? Try the soda machine around the side of the building. Bring your own beer. Heck, bring your own slaw.
How pure is Round Pond Lobster? It doesn’t even mess with lobster rolls. This certainly separates the men from the boys, but the boys need simply amble across the street to Muscongus Bay Lobster, which sports a snazzier deck and one of the finest lobster rolls in Maine.
The crowd that remains at Round Pond Lobster is quieter, veteran, salty. At some point, you became one of them, because the time had come to put away childish things. You didn’t want the lobster to come to you, gussied up like a sandwich; you wanted to come to the lobster. Hence this simple trading post, where you take the coast on its own terms. It is what it is, just like the unadorned bug before you. Every year, you eat it with a little more humility, and a little more gratitude that some things don’t change. There will still be many more lobsters to eat in this very seat, and one day soon your kid—or maybe your grandkid—will join you, striding back from the order window with a heaping plate and a face full of fear and wonder.
Red’s Eats, 41 Water St., Wiscasset, ME 207-882-6128
Round Pond Lobster Fishermen’s Co-op, 25 Landing Road, Round Pond, ME 207-529-5725
Muscongus Bay Lobster Co., 28 Landing Road, Round Pond, ME 207-529-2251; mainefreshlobster.com
Nunan’s Lobster Hut, 9 Mills Road, Kennebunkport, ME 207-967-4362; nunanslobsterhut.com