Lobster Roll, Flying Napkins

I could practically smell the Atlantic Ocean from my childhood home. Summertime in Maine always begins on memorial day, when everyone and their brother drives up to stampede our t-shirt shops and fried fish stands with crisp cash. To me, the holy grail, the crown jewel, is the lobster roll. It was a privilege, one which I overlooked, finding a bucket of squirming brown claws on our porch an hour before dinner. Yet, I always savored the taste of fresh lobster meat. We would typically rip open the shells with reckless abandon and a trash can close by, the screen door ajar with a soft wind passing through. We would microwave butter in multi-colored plastic cups saved from Easter egg dying, and that was all we needed.


Our family visited from Florida in June or July, and our tradition was to get seafood at a dock-side restaurant near my grandmother’s house. The entire place was packed with tourists, seagulls grazing the steps for spilled french fries, and filled with the aroma of salt water and steamed seaweed. We would sit around a red gingham picnic table under an umbrella with bowls of mussels, paper cups filled with fried oysters, and plastic cups of melted butter. The sound of crushed shells echoed over our conversation. I remember the face the adults would make when squeezing their nut crackers over a tough claw. The smart ones amongst us would simply order a lobster roll. 


The necessary components of a great lobster roll: a freshly buttered bun, grilled on a hot, flat grill. The inside must be tender, almost cake-like, but that implies there's some special way to make it. Just grill a store-bought hot dog bun gently. The lobster should be tooth-tender but slightly firm. Claw meat, knuckle meat, tail meat, all of it! More than can fit.


In recent years, the hot, buttered lobster roll has emerged and surged in popularity, but I am very loyal to the cold mayonnaise lobster roll. The contrast of the lobster and the grilled bun sings to me. Cold lobster takes on more of a chewy, meaty texture, and the mayonnaise dances on the tongue with a slight essence of lemon and salt. True authentic rolls end there, but I’ve eaten too many with a soggy lettuce layer, or an attempt at sliced tomatoes or clever flavors. 


My favorite lobster roll was from Libby’s Market in Brunswick, who closed their doors in 2016. Ironically, I first went there with my New Yorker roommate who read up on the best spots to eat before trekking up north. All the upperclassmen raved about it, too, and it was charmingly nestled in a downtown, back-street convenience store with rusty picnic tables. The ones with poles that nearly snapped in the wind. I remember napkins scattered on the ground after flying out of their flimsy cage.


The first trip was freshman year. We had nothing but time, but we waited impatiently like moths at a window. The owners were kind, and total Maine stereotypes. Thick accents. Thick tans. Hard working to a fault. I imagined them sprawling on reclined chairs with ice packs and Tylenol after a hard day. All for my moment of sustenance. The owner, an affable, tall woman, offered us each a free shot of moonshine, but we had to come back when we turned 21. 


Our next visits were special, and we didn’t notice how fast we were growing. We unwrapped the thick, white paper and weighed it down with our plastic bottles, afraid to take too many sips. We could see graffitied railroad tracks in the distance. We swatted at bugs, pushed our sunglasses onto the tops of our heads. Talked about school, our teachers. Family. 


The last time we went was on my roommate’s birthday. Senior year. There was an air of melancholy around us. He turned 21 and I drove us there spontaneously, unsatisfied with hosting such a special dinner in the dining hall. We both excitedly approached the counter, as always, noticing there was no crowd. What luck!


The owner greeted us, like she always did, but her voice had changed. It was deep, sad, empty. She told us they were closing, for good, and it was their last shift. After commiserations, we skipped the moonshine. I think she forgot, or ran out, but it was also our way of making sure our growing up never happened. We chewed our lobster and crunched our buttery buns with the future looming in the distance. There was a peachy haze over us, and the wind had died. No flying napkins. I can’t remember a thing we talked about. We ate slowly. Thoughtfully.


The roll was grilled, with a crisp ochre butter coating on the outside. The lobster was perfectly cooked, slightly squeaky and firm. Cold. It was coated in a thin layer of mayo, and had been perfectly seasoned. Probably from the salted cooking water. I distinctly remember the white paper coming with a colored rubber band. I contemplated never opening it, placing it on a high shelf like a trophy. I haven’t had a lobster roll that could make me shudder since, and I knew this would be the case. They’re all missing something. Maybe it’s the picnic table, the white paper, or the feeling of being 21.

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