“Saturday Traffic Alert,” read the subject line of an email from our vacation property manager.
We were packing up after a blissful week in midcoast Maine, where my family and I had spent the days either on a boat; on the shore, finding leftover shells in the mudflats; or driving the rural roads of the St. George peninsula. In the evenings, we returned to the house where we cooked our own meals and usually collapsed into bed before 10. Seven days and six nights of pure idyll justified Maine’s self-proclaimed title as “Vacationland.”
But then reality struck: a traffic alert. The property manager explained:
“It happens every year from about the 3rd Saturday in July – through the 3rd Saturday in August – it’s become a regular Maine tradition. The ‘great Wiscasset bottleneck.’ The small village of Wiscasset has a well known food wagon called “Red’s Eats” right in the center of the village the [sic] develops long lines early in the day. As a result, traffic slows to figure out why people wait for hours to get a lobster roll (that we think is no different than lobster rolls elsewhere) and all those ‘rubberneckers’ build up the traffic lines quickly.”
We hadn’t heard a traffic report in over a week, and now, if we didn’t leave town early enough, we would have to endure a traffic jam – for a lobster roll.
I came to know of Red’s earlier in the week soon after a friend caught wind that I was in Maine: “Seriously, you must go to Red’s! Best lobster roll on the planet. DO NOT MISS THIS. MUST GET THERE NO LATER THAN 11:45. Crazy lines.”
Unswayed by caps lock and frankly too far from Wiscasset, I had my first-ever lobster roll in the state of Maine from Miller’s Lobster Company, a Spruce Head shack with its own fans. Located on Wheeler Bay, with invigorating views of placid water and blue spruces, Miller’s had no lines but there was a wait of about 30 tummy-grumbling minutes for our chosen crustaceans to go from tank to pot to bun. Served on a split-top potato roll – kind of a like a hot dog bun moonlighting as a slice of white bread – and with a plastic ramekin of melted butter and bag of Lay’s potato chips, Miller’s lobster roll seemed like the perfect lunch. As I bit into the fresh chunks of bun-swaddled lobster meat, I thought, “How can any seafood place anywhere improve upon this?”
While I was confident in my endorsement of Miller’s, I was even more impressed with the trap-to-table ethos of seafood dining in Maine. The lobster capital of the United States – if not the world – Maine harvested more than 100 million pounds of lobster in 2011 and is on track to shatter that record this year. Lobster isn’t just rich man’s food in Maine, it is everywhere, a fact that doesn’t compute until you’re driving on coastal Route 1, passing signs claiming “the best lobster roll in Maine” about every 3.7 seconds. I saw lobster rolls advertised for $9.99 at roadside stands to $18 at The Pearl, the kitchen of “Food Network Star” contestant Michele Ragussis. Most places charged about $14 for their rolls, to me a princely sum considering the lobster content of a roll added up to about two claws’ worth of meat dressed with a bit of mayonnaise and/or butter. Besides, lobsters were selling for about $6.50 per pound at the dock.
Convinced that the lobster roll price fluctuation was based solely on the labor costs of extracting the meat from the shell rather than some magic mayonnaise recipe, my husband and I visited Owls Head’s Ship to Shore lobster pound on our second night and purchased two medium-sized lobsters for our meal. As they sat in a paper bag on my lap on the drive home, then as they quietly chirped in the fridge while we brought a large pot of water to a boil, I realized the market price of a lobster roll was a tariff on convenience. Once cooked, these lobsters that had been skittering only hours earlier on the rocky bottom of the Atlantic Ocean (the very waters from which all the area’s seafood dinners had originated), produced the sweetest, most luscious meat I had ever tasted. That we had cooked the lobsters ourselves, creating a 20-napkin mess as we cracked the claws, split open the tails and gingerly removed the flesh with lobster picks, was more satisfying than waiting while someone else made dinner. Renting a house, rather than staying in a resort or bed and breakfast, afforded us the chance to live as Mainers, to cook in our own kitchen. We bought and cooked our own lobsters four out of seven nights.
Early morning on the sixth day, as we were mentally preparing to leave the midcoast, I checked my email and found the traffic alert from the landlord. We hadn’t made it to Red’s Eats or to the dozens of other diners, restaurants and shacks beckoning with “best lobster roll” signs. But I was relieved to read the statement that Red’s rolls were no different than lobster rolls elsewhere.
Why would vacationers line up for hours for a lobster roll when they have likely spent the last week or two gorging on the same fare without having had to take a number and wait? While I bet Red’s rolls were delicious – I’ve never had a lobster roll that wasn’t – I have a hunch that Red’s reels in the tourists who just can’t say goodbye to that midcoast Maine state of mind.