Seafood 101: History of the Lobster Roll
Lobster has come a long way from the days when it was considered poor people’s food. Originally, when the colonists first arrived, there was an abundance of lobster available. As a result, they were not considered a delicacy like today. Instead, they were left for the poor and to feed prisoners.
Today, one of the more popular seafood dishes people enjoy is lobster rolls. You can find them in upscale restaurants, sandwich shops, food trucks, and lobster stands dotting the New England coast.
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What is a lobster roll?
A lobster roll uses the claw, tail, and knuckle meat and is served in a steamed or toasted bun. The bun can be a hot dog bun, hoagie bun, or mini sub roll. How the lobster is prepared and served will vary as there are two different types of lobster rolls:
- Maine Lobster Rolls
- Connecticut Lobster Rolls
What is the difference between Maine and Connecticut lobster rolls?
Maine lobster rolls consist of chilled lobster that is mixed with mayonnaise and served in a toasted bun. There are many different versions of Maine lobster rolls. Some also include celery and onion in the mixture and are topped off with lettuce. Some recipes also use Old Bay seasoning in the mayonnaise mixture.
Unlike Maine lobster rolls that are served with chilled lobster, Connecticut lobster rolls are served hot. Freshly cooked lobster is soaked in melted butter and piled into a steamed or toasted bun. There are a few variations of Connecticut lobster rolls. In one version, the melted butter is served on the side for dipping rather than soaking the lobster meat in it. Another version uses lemon juice that is freshly squeezed over the lobster meat.
Where did lobster rolls originate?
While most people assume lobster rolls originated in Maine, since they are often made using Maine lobsters, they would be wrong. The first lobster roll was created at Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut, in 1929.
Who invented the lobster roll?
As the story goes, the owner of Perry’s, Harry, had a salesman who wanted a hot lobster dinner to go so that he could eat while driving. So, Harry put the lobster meat on sliced white bread, and the lobster roll was born.
However, Harry decided using white bread did not hold up well to the butter-soaked lobster. So he searched for a different type of bread to use that would stand up better.
Unlike the split-top buns used today, he selected a hoagie bun. He could cut the top out, fill it up with lobster meat, and put the top back on.
Where was the Maine lobster roll invented?
While Perry’s was the first documented hot lobster roll being served in a restaurant, there is a recipe for a cold lobster salad in The Frugal Housewife cookbook written by Lydia Maria Child and published in 1829.
The recipe calls for mixing chilled lobster meat in a dressing consisting of oil, mustard, egg yolks, cayenne pepper, and vinegar, and then topping it with finely sliced lettuce. This lobster salad recipe is believed to have helped influence the creation of the Maine lobster roll.
There are stories of Maine lobster rolls being served in restaurants and roadside stands as early as the late 1930s. However, the famous Maine lobster roll did not become popular until the 1950s. During this time, New England experienced a boom in summer tourism. By then, lobster was no longer considered poor people’s food.
As a result, roadside food stands and restaurants were looking for a cold lobster sandwich they could put on their menus, and the Maine lobster roll we know today was born. However, little is known about who actually invented it.
How did lobster rolls become popular across the country?
One contributor that helped spread the popularity of Maine lobster rolls was Chef Jasper White. He put his own spin on the lobster roll he featured at his Summer Shack restaurants in the 1980s, and they are still on the menu today. His original restaurant received numerous awards and media attention which helped increase and spread the popularity of lobster rolls outside of New England.
Another contributor who helped make Maine lobster rolls famous was Chef Rebecca Charles. In 1996, she created her own version of the Maine lobster roll, which she served at the Pearl Oyster Bar, her restaurant in Greenwich Village. She was also the first to serve a Maine lobster roll in New York City.
It was a short time before magazine publishers in New York started reviewing her version and publishing it in magazines distributed nationwide. As a result, Maine lobster rolls were being reintroduced nationwide once again.
Today, you can find either Connecticut or Maine lobster rolls, or sometimes both versions, on menus of seafood restaurants, food trucks, and sandwich shops across the country.
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Kageyama, B. (2020). When Lobsters Were Poverty Food.
Fincher, M. (2022). What Is Old Bay Seasoning?
Your Guide to the Maine Lobster. (2022).
The Frugal Housewife. (1829).
Chef Jasper White.
Pearl Oyster Bar.