I Live in New England and I Don’t Get the Lobster Roll Hype

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I Live in New England and I Don’t Get the Lobster Roll Hype

When I first moved to Boston, there was a lot I was excited for: walking in between the old brick buildings on my way to class, the slow change of seasons I never experienced when I lived in the South, even the blustery snowstorms that would keep me encased in my studio apartment, making me feel like I was living in a snow globe. But what I was most excited about was the prospect of taking my first-ever bite of a lobster roll, savoring what I imagined must be an earth-shattering culinary delight.

To me, lobster rolls were a symbol of summertime, so although I moved to Boston in December, I waited until June to seek out the seafood sandwich of my dreams. In New England, lobster rolls are primarily served two different ways: with butter or with mayo. This is a contentious topic, but everyone I knew who had indulged in a proper lobster roll told me I should go for the buttered version, so as I visited a quaint restaurant outside the city on one of the first warm days since I had arrived, that’s exactly what I ordered. I sat in anxious anticipation, ready to devour this shining beacon of New England cuisine.

My $30 sandwich arrived, carefully nestled in a red-and-white checkered paper tray, the butter-soaked orangey-pink flesh of the meat almost completely obscuring the slightly crisped, buttery roll. Chunks of lobster fell out of the roll and back onto the tray as I lifted the sandwich to my mouth, already salivating in anticipation. But upon taking my first bite, I was dismayed to discover that my lobster roll tasted of little more than butter. Yes, there’s a textural element there—the bouncy, almost chewy texture of the lobster worked well with the toasted roll—and the lobster itself was obviously fresh with its light, bright sea water-y flavor. My impression of the dish as a whole, though, was lackluster.

After this disappointing (and expensive) experience, I figured that I just hadn’t gone to the right spot, despite following the recommendations I’d received. So I went to more restaurants, tried more lobster rolls. Sometimes I stuck with the butter recommendation; other times, I would switch it up and try the mayo. But after five or six lobster rolls, all of which came with a hefty bill for a single sandwich, I started to realize that I wasn’t going to the wrong places—I just didn’t like lobster rolls.

In my time in New England, this admission has earned me many blank stares and a few looks of disgust. That’s completely fair; I roll my eyes when a non-Southerner tells me they ate at Waffle House and hated it. But as someone who’s not from New England, I feel like it’s acceptable for me to tell the truth: Lobster rolls just aren’t worth the hype. They’re certainly not bad; they’re just lacking in flavor. I can even see how someone who prefers bland foods would enjoy them. But I just can’t stomach the idea of paying $30 for a sandwich that has less flavor than a $2 hot dog.

I hope that someday, I’ll order a lobster roll on a whim and I’ll be met with a deeply flavorful sandwich that makes me understand why they’re so popular in this part of the world. I’m certainly open to suggestions. I think I’m probably just missing the point, though. Maybe lobster rolls aren’t really about delivering the most exciting, groundbreaking flavors to ever appear on a bun. Maybe they’re more about evoking a sense of nostalgia, a reminder of warm days on New England’s beautiful coastline, taking dips in the icy water, toes dug into the coarse sand, a fresh lobster roll just blocks away from the sunscreen-scented beach.

These aren’t my own food memories, of course, but I can relate to them. The Pasta Roni my mom would prepare on hot summer evenings, the Filet-o-Fish wrapped in crinkly yellow paper from McDonald’s, the last square of cheese in the Lunchables I would get as a treat in my lunchbox—these are all foods that probably wouldn’t hold much appeal to anyone who didn’t grow up with them, but to me, they’re so much more than the sum of their flavors. (I mean, granted, those foods also don’t cost $30 a pop, but you get my point.)

I’ve largely resigned myself to the fact that I just don’t like lobster rolls, so I usually don’t order them now. Every once in a while, though, I’m hopeful, and I try one again. Maybe their charm is lost on me. Or maybe someday after I’ve moved on, after I’ve left New England for some other corner of the world, I’ll come back to Boston and order a lobster roll on a whim, only to discover what I’ve been missing all this time: that sense of nostalgia, of returning, of tasting a place in a dish. Maybe someday, I’ll eat that lobster roll. 

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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