The Little Red Lobster Shack
The line for lobster rolls at Red’s Eats is almost as famous as Wiscasset itself.
If you’re on the deck behind Red’s Eats, this magazine in one hand, a fat lobster roll in the other, take a long and loving look at that sandwich. It is the inspiration of the late Al Gagnon, the owner of Red’s Eats for thirty-one years. A master cook of simple, comforting food, Gagnon was moved to add the lobster roll to his menu after sampling a disappointing version elsewhere. “I bit into it and — awg! — the frozen meat and what have you,” a wincing Gagnon told WQED Pittsburgh’s Rick Sebak in 2002. “I said to myself, ‘You’re going to make a lobster roll that’s a lobster roll.’ ”
Gagnon’s first effort mixed the seafood with a bit of mayonnaise, a common preparation for lobster rolls in Maine. After hearing the words “hold the mayo” over and over, however, he tried an ingeniously simple new tack: he stuffed his buns with an ultra-generous serving of unadorned lobster, and offered mayonnaise and drawn butter on the side. “People loved that,” says cook Cindy Collamore, Gagnon’s daughter, who is carrying on her father’s legacy with sister Debbie Cronk, Red’s Eats’ manager and cashier, and brothers David and Joe Gagnon, who serve as handymen on call.
Indeed they did. Word of the mouthwatering mountain of goodness spread, enchanting vacationers, whose hordes attracted the attention of food and travel writers, whose rhapsodizing drew morning show hosts and television chefs, whose delirium called forth ever more vacationers.
Behold! In your hand rests the lobster roll known ’round the world.
But how did it get here?
To answer that question, we’re going to deconstruct your roll and rewind its journey from take-out window to sea. (Relax. We’re speaking figuratively. You may go ahead and eat your lobster roll.)
Minutes before your sandwich emerged from the kitchen in its foil wrapping, the day’s lobster roll queen — most likely Shannon Moody — was assembling it on a two-by-two-foot square of countertop. Dipping her gloved hand into a plastic container, Shannon grabbed large pieces of lobster, ripped them into chunks (she never, never, never, ever uses a knife, which can impart an oxidized-metal flavor to seafood), and stuffed them into an expertly grilled split-top hot dog bun. Next, Shannon snugged the meat from two whole claws into the bun so they poked from each end like rose-colored mittens waving for attention. Finally, she crowned her creation with a whole, split lobster tail. Not once did Shannon weigh the meat; her eyes and fingers did the measuring.
The fresh lobster meat that Shannon piled into your roll arrived at Red’s Eats this very morning between 11 and 11:30 a.m. aboard a refrigerated truck from Atlantic Edge Lobster, a small shellfish processor on the water in Boothbay Harbor. (Red’s also buys lobster meat from Maine Shellfish in Ellsworth.) That meat came from lobsters that yesterday were very much alive, crawling around in holding tanks until they were dropped into industrial-size pots of boiling water. Fifteen minutes or so later, the cooked lobsters were deposited on a table, where three shuckers began snapping off tails and gently cracking claws with hammers to extract the meat within.
Thirty lobsterboats had deposited the iconic Maine crustaceans to the company docks a day or two before. Perhaps the meat in your sandwich came from the lobsters swimming in the holding tank of the Optical Illusion captained by Nick Hawke. The day your lobster was caught, Hawke and his sternman met on the dock in Southport at 5:15 a.m. to load barrels of bait. By 6 a.m. they were motoring out to Hawke’s first orange and white buoy. By day’s end Hawke delivered the contents of three hundred traps to Atlantic Edge, where they were launched on their journey to your lobster roll.
Test Your Red’s IQ
1) How many tons of fresh picked lobster meat are piled into split-top rolls at Red’s from mid-April to mid-October?
A) 2 B) 5.25 C) 8.5
2) How many pounds of butter are used daily for cooking and drizzling atop lobster rolls?
A) 10 B) 20 C) 40
3) What is the average length of time you can expect to wait to place your order in July and August?
A) one hour B) forty-five minutes C) one-and-a-half hours
4) Next to the lobster rolls, fried haddock is the most popular item on the Red’s menu. How many pounds are cooked daily?
A) 5 to 10 B) 11 to 15 C) 16 to 25
5) How many pounds of Spanish onions does it take to meet the weekly demand for onion rings?
A) 50 B) 100 C) 200
ANSWERS: 1) C. Red’s doesn’t measure its servings, but the estimate is 34,000 to 45,000 lobster rolls each season, or approximately 8.5 tons. 2) B. 3) B. Some customers have reported waits as long as two hours; however, they still say the food was worth it. 4) C. Not all of the haddock is fried. Red’s cooks happily accommodate orders for grilled haddock. 5) C.
Red’s Famous Lobster Roll
If you want to cook and pick your own lobster meat, plan on one 1- to-11/2 pound hardshell lobster or two to three 1- to 11/2-pound softshell lobsters per roll. (Do not use
frozen lobster meat; that is a sin.)
1 split-top hot dog bun, sides brushed with melted butter
plenty of fresh, cooked lobster meat, including two whole claws and a whole tail, deveined and split
drawn butter, optional
mayonnaise, preferably extra heavy, optional
Grill the hot dog bun until sides are toasted and golden. This takes just a few minutes.
Rip lobster meat into chunks and fill the middle of the roll. Put the whole claws at each side of the roll and put the split lobster tail on top.
Ogle your sandwich. Eat as is or drizzled with drawn butter or mayonnaise. Wish you had made two.