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Let’s Make Lobster Rolls

A lobster roll!
Photo: Albert Burneko/Illustration: Chris Thompson

The problem was, the Defector Idiots had been talking about Maine on some afternoon, and then talking about Maine naturally, as it must, led to talking about lobster rolls. Now I wanted one—in fact I wanted the whole wider experience of being, for a change, out in the sun in the kind of place where you can just get a lobster roll and eat it while listening to the sound of seagulls and water crashing into rocks—but I live many hundreds of miles away from New England, where as I seem to recall lobster rolls fall off of trees. And there's the whole pandemic thing: You can't go anywhere. Life is broken. Maine might as well be Neptune.

The lobster roll part of this problem was easier to solve; if I couldn't have any of the rest of it, I could have a lobster roll. I could just make a frickin' lobster roll, and did. If the lobster roll didn't quite suffice as a stand-in for literally everything you'd get out of traveling to some nice other place to be nourished and refreshed by new set of sights and sounds and smells, hell, it tasted good. I ate one outside on the porch. Like Captain Ahab!

Maybe you, too, would like to make a lobster roll. Let's do it.

Here are some things that you will need.

I suppose it goes without saying that you will need some cold lobster meat. Let's talk about that some. The last two times I made lobster rolls, I had the very good fortune to find some vacuum-sealed packages of (very good!) lobster claw and knuckle meat in the freezer at the good grocery store nearby. I can only imagine how utterly this cheat discredits me in the eyes of various peg-legged Mainers and such, but that's OK, because it meant that I didn't have to personally arrange the death of any lobsters. If you have the chance to go this route, I recommend it! Plan on, oh, I dunno, something like half a cup of lobster meat per roll, why not. I have no idea how many ounces that is. It's my studied opinion that claw and knuckle meat make for the best lobster roll, but tail meat is more abundant and it's fine in there, too.

The alternative to the packaged stuff, in all likelihood, involves buying live lobsters and dispatching them. It's safe to estimate that you'll need one lobster for every two lobster rolls. Truly crazy amounts of real and digital ink have been spilled on the ethics of killing lobsters, and of the various ways of killing them, in the years before and since that frickin' essay. For me, no particular method of killing a lobster that I've tried (I've tried a few, and with one of them had a truly horrible experience that I will not recap here for fear of undermining my goal of persuading you to make a lobster roll) has not left me feeling, at the absolute least, vaguely sad and conflicted afterward; my preference for farming this grim job out to some unseen worker somewhere does not make me St. Francis of Assisi so much as it safeguards my appetite, and that's a sort of disappointing thing to know about myself that I'm nevertheless largely able to live with, which is itself also disappointing. In any event I have ushered whole dozens of bushels of live blue crabs to their deaths in my life without ever thinking much about it; my shirt-rending over a lobster, in this context, is probably an abomination. The human mind is a deep ocean of mysteries.

I'm guessing you did not come here for a disquisition on what my taste for lobster makes me think about myself. My earnest thought on the matter is if you are the sort to conduct a reasonable good-faith search for the most humane way to kill a lobster, then you likely also are the sort (like me! Let's be pals) for whom none of the available methods will fully resolve or remove your pity for the lobster or your wish that it could somehow be dispatched even more humanely—nor should they, because ultimately, killing a creature so that you can eat it is just not a kind thing to do. I recommend accepting that what you're encountering is the substrate of grief indivisible from having sentience and a conscience in a hard and death-haunted world where living creatures eat each other to survive; and that if you are fortunate, decent, and have a soul then you will continue to experience some form of that grief so long as you live no matter how ferociously you struggle to reject your share of the world's churning cruelty; and going for the quick transit from extreme refrigerated cold to a headfirst plunge into a large pot of very vigorously boiling water with a heavy, tight-fitting lid. For the lobster! For the lobster. Just to be clear. It will be dead in under 30 seconds. We should move on.

As for cooking the lobster, I recommend hacking it in half lengthwise, laying the halves cut-side-up on a cookie sheet, brushing them with a little melted butter, and roasting them in a 350-degree oven for like 15 minutes, then letting them cool before getting into the annoying business of extracting their meat. I'm not boldfacing this part or including it in the cooking steps section of the blog because this is not a blog about how to cook lobster; it is a blog about making damn lobster rolls! I don't give a damn how you wind up with about half a lobster worth of cold lobster meat per lobster roll, so long as you get there! Many seafood counters and supermarkets now sell whole cooked cold lobsters, for that matter, which is pretty dang convenient if you ask me!!!!

You will also need hot dog buns. Now, listen. Strictly speaking, the Right Way to make a lobster roll involves the kind of hot dog bun that is split at the top, rather than along the side. There's a reasonably good, uh, reason for this, in my opinion: The split-top ones stand up on a plate, holding their contents upward, a little more stably than the slit-along-the-side kind, and for a lobster roll this is great because it means the lobster is less likely to spill out and become just a pile of lobster on a plate next to an empty bun. But do not let any potential difficulty in finding split-top buns dissuade you from making lobster rolls; if all you can find are the normal kind, it's fine. It's fine! It'll be fine.

You will need butter. I recommend salted butter for this, because why not. You can entirely stop there if you want: You can make a fully delicious lobster roll out of some lobster meat, a hot dog bun, and some butter, no matter what anyone says. Personally I like to go a little farther: The first lobster roll I ever had, and the one I remember most fondly, had the lobster tossed with a little bit of mayonnaise and some finely chopped chives. For that matter, I also like to very, very finely chop some celery and mix it in. It tastes good! It's fine! Purity and/or authenticity are not good reasons not to do it this way!

That's definitely all you need. Now let's finally make the damn thing. This is going to happen very quickly, I promise.

The first thing is to melt some butter. You won't need much for four lobster rolls; maybe a third of a normal-sized stick of butter? You can do this in a little saucepan or you can do it in the microwave. It makes no difference to me, or to your future lobster roll.

Get out a big kitchen knife and hack the lobster meat into chunks. Do not mince the lobster. It is very good and satisfying for the lobster in your lobster roll to be in nice big chunks; it is less good for you to have to saw through a whole damn lobster tail when you take a bite of your lobster roll. Aim for no chunks bigger than, oh, let's say, a nice big (plausible) green grape, and definitely don't waste your time aiming for uniformity or, like, cube shapes or whatever. Just hack the stuff. It's fine. You're doing fine. Dump your hacked-up lobster meat into a big bowl.

Now, if you are going the route that involves greenery, dump your finely chopped chives and celery in there too. You don't need a lot of this stuff. I don't know how many lobster rolls you're making; I don't know how much lobster you have. Take a look up at the photo at the top of this blog: That lobster roll does not have a lot of chives and celery in it. Aim for what seems like that ratio of lobster to chives and celery, if you like. Or use more. Or use none. I don't give a damn!

Next, scoop a little mayonnaise into that bowl. Not a lot, here. Your goal is just to flatter the lobster with a little bit of richness, not to make sludge. Again, look at the photo up there: That lobster does not have a lot of mayo on it! It has a very thin dressing of mayo. Let's agree that you are making, say, four lobster rolls, and that you obeyed the earlier directive to use about a half a cup of lobster per lobster roll. In that case, use, oh, a modestly heaping tablespoon of mayo. Gently fold this stuff together with a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon, so as not to rip the lobster chunks apart, until the mayo and greenery are evenly distributed among the lobster. Set this aside for a minute.

Warm up a skillet over medium-low heat. Brush a little melted butter onto the sides and bottom of one of those buns. Now toast that sucker in the dang pan, turning it with tongs as each side and the bottom acquire some nice browned action and smell toasty and buttery and delicious. (You can also do this with the top of the bun if you like. There's no rule against it. Go nuts!) In a pan kept miles shy of, like, steak-searing temperatures, each bun will be out of there in under 90 seconds. Scoop big generous portions of the lobster into each bun. That was the whole thing.

Your lobster roll is: Sweet, rich but not heavy, gently briny; there's all kinds of cool balancing between the tender lobster and the mildly crispy toasted bun; it's very delicious. A terrific thing to eat. If you find the experience suffers from the lack of crying seagulls, ocean wind, spontaneity, a certain lightness of spirit ... well, shit. You can only accomplish so much in a kitchen.

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