Ralph Gardner Jr.: Fresh lobster roll was a little taste of heaven in the summer from hell

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This marked the first vacation where I gave thought to a rest stop even before the journey began. Knowing myself, at least my body rhythms, I was confident that I couldn't make it all the way from our house in Columbia County to a restaurant in York, Maine — a three-and-a-half hour drive — without a pit stop.

Hence, the dark thoughts about the rough tumblers I'd encounter in the restroom — denizens of states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona with their devil-may-care attitude toward personal protective equipment. If there seemed any opportunity to contract COVID, that would be it.

I wouldn't board a plane at the moment — my daughter shows me selfies of her socially responsible friends awaiting takeoff in hazmat suits, visors and N95 masks, but, fortunately, I don't need or want to travel anywhere that much — but a Honda CR-V seemed to present an acceptable risk if one were simply skipping from your own enlightened hot spot-free zone to another one with minimal tarrying.

We weren't planning to go anywhere this summer except our backyard. But, when friends selflessly invited us to stay at their guesthouse on the Maine coast, the opportunity to avoid going stir-crazy seemed too good to pass up.

Once we arrived, we knew we'd be safe — their home is on a secluded peninsula; the only issue was getting there.

The experience at the rest stop — my recollection is that it was the Natick Service Plaza, but don't take my word for it, since rest stops on the Mass Pike have a cookie-cutter vibe — was blessedly uneventful. While the plaza wasn't unpopulated, I happened to hit the men's room at an uneventful moment, and everyone, or almost everyone, seemed to be observing the face mask rule.

York, Maine, was a different story. I don't know what impressed me more — the sight of the mighty Atlantic after the monotony of the interstate, or hundreds, if not thousands, of beachgoers behaving as if it was 2019. The resort boasted the tumult of any normal summer, with a critical mass of sunbathers, swimmers, boogie boards, lines outside lobster shacks and ice cream stands and traffic moving at a crawl.

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My reaction was less one of alarm than nostalgia for the thoughtless, casual way the world used to be and hopefully will again in summers to come. Fortunately, our destination — Fox's Lobster House — was outside of town and also had an outdoor seating area where everyone seemed to be observing the rules.

We're lucky enough to visit Maine most summers. But, our normal lodgings, at a friend's art studio in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island, was occupied by their adult daughters seeking refuge from the pandemic. So, until our other friends came to our rescue, I was almost resigned to suffering through the summer without a single lobster roll.

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I don't know what it is about lobster rolls. Actually, I do. They're not beef, chicken or fish, yet somehow they manage to capture the best aspects of all three — the depth of a good steak, the inoffensiveness of chicken and the briny aroma of fish. Paired with crispy french fries, a side of coleslaw and a root beer to wash it all down, the fears of the moment seemed to vanish in thin air.

The ignorant might assume there's no difference between one lobster roll and another, but the subtleties can spell the difference between delight and disappointment. For starters, they must include a generous amount of lobster meat, preferably tail, overflowing the bun. Mayo serves as the lobster's delivery system but must be employed judiciously — neither too much nor too little.

I confronted a dilemma a few years back when I was offered the opportunity at a popular lobster joint on Martha's Vineyard to have a lobster roll with either mayo or melted butter. I'd never had one with melted butter before, but if butter can enhance a whole lobster, why not a lobster roll?

It was too rich even for me, so, the following summer, I returned to mayo. But, something wondrous has happened this summer in Maine. I had the best lobster roll of my life. What set it apart?

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It was incredibly fresh and delicate, for one thing. While I patiently waited to hear the name "Ralph" — I don't love my name, but there's no missing it when your order is called — my wife and I watched as crates of fresh lobster were raised from the sea and delivered to the kitchen. I don't think it was just for show.

And the restaurant, McLoons Lobster Shack in South Thomaston (credit where credit is due), even solved the mayo-vs.-butter conundrum. How? By serving both.

The bun came lathered with mayo, but they also supplied a container of butter to drizzle, or rather dump, over the meat. If I have any criticism, it's only that they served potato chips instead of fries.

Can lunch, not to mention life, get any better than that? Actually, it can. With a McLoons whoopie pie for dessert. This thing was roughly the size of a dinner plate. It took two hands to control. But, oh! the soft chocolate cake and the cream filling.

We're going to get through this thing. But, a little emotional support doesn't hurt. Lobster rolls and whoopie pies were made for times like these.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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