What New Yorkers Don’t Want to Know about the Maine Lobster Glut

I’m a lobster fanatic.  I do side-by-side taste tests in search of the perfect lobster roll.  I comb scientific research to find a hypothesis for why soft shell lobsters are sweeter than hard shell.  And every New Year’s Eve I pay four times the market price in New York City to get lobsters shipped overnight from Maine.

That’s why I was so interested in New York Magazine’s recent feature “On a Roll” about how a lobster glut in Maine has spawned a new class of New York entrepreneurs selling lobster rolls out of their apartments and at flea markets, pop-up stands, and storefronts.  As a business venture, it’s seems particularly to have caught the attention of frustrated young lawyers and i-bankers who see a new “buy low-sell high” opportunity here.

Their business case centers on how two “E’s” – environment and economy – dramatically impacted the supply of and demand for Maine lobster.  As New York Magazine writer Benjamin Wallace aptly explains, an over-fishing of cod diminished one of young lobsters’ key predators and strict fishing limits on the size of each lobster taken defeated another. 

As the supply of lobster reached historic levels, demand for it was dealt a double blow.  The first hit is easy to guess – diminished orders from recession-hit restaurants.  But what Wallace also tells us is that more than half of Maine’s catch had been sold to Canadian processors who lost their credit lines in 2008 when the Icelandic banking system crashed.  According to New York Magazine, “The price of Maine lobster at the dock dropped from $5 to $2.50 a pound.”

In stepped the NYC lobster roll entrepreneurs.  They saw the opportunity to buy lobster meat at affordable prices and then sell it in sumptuous rolls that appeal “to the foodie trend of wanting to get back to artisanal food and its source.”

Now here’s the sad truth. 

New York foodies love the lobster roll debate: what type of roll, should it be toasted, the merits of celery, how much mayonnaise, the sinful deception of using lettuce as a filler.

But it’s all about the flavor of the lobster meat.  And lobster never tastes as good in New York as it does in Maine.

Talk to Dane Somers, Executive Director of the Lobster Council of Maine about why even live lobster from, say, Fairway doesn’t taste as good as what you get in Maine. “Everyone thinks that if it’s alive, you can’t get any fresher than that.  But there is a subtle difference.  It’s like fresh-cut flowers.  One-day-old flowers are not as fresh as those cut this morning.”

I don’t want to sound like rotten tomatoes, but that’s the analogy that comes to my mind: the flavor of tomatoes shipped from another continent versus picked from your garden. 

Before you agree with the “artisanal food” label, you have to ask how the lobster roll entrepreneurs get their lobster from Maine to New York.  One cooks the lobster in Maine and ships it down in pre-portioned 4-ounce Saran-wrapped packets.  Another bought a van for better conduct of live lobsters that had been dying on the BQE during the weekly trips in the back of his Chevy Avalanche.

Even lobsters transported live for high-volume seafood enterprises deteriorate in flavor. In transit and then in tanks for two or three days, they are not fed and obviously under stress.  Believe me, it affects the flavor.

Now we shouldn’t deny ourselves a good lobster roll here in NYC.  I’ll have mine at Pearl’s or the Mermaid Inn with a gin and tonic and praise the fries.  But I’ll recognize that, unfortunately, a lobster roll in New York is more about summoning summertime’s consummate symbol.  Not flavor.

If you are truly interested in food and want to taste the real thing, you have to haul yourself up to Maine.

It’s a long haul.  That’s why everyone defaults to the Hamptons or Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.  But those in search of the perfect lobster roll will go to Maine.

Right now you can get a round-trip ticket from JFK to Portland for about $300.  From Portland drive 3-hours-plus to Mount Desert Island, which has been ranked by both Travel and Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler as one of the most beautiful islands in the world.  About the same size as Martha’s Vineyard, but with 24 mountain peaks, it has the mesmerizing scenery of where the mountains meet the sea.  In addition to scouting your personal favorite among the lobster pounds, you can visit Acadia National Park.

  • Watch the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain, the first place from which to witness dawn in the United States.
  • Drive the Park Loop Road, the 27-mile masterful collaboration between John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
  • Bike some of the 57 miles of car-free carriage roads…or explore them as originally intended, on a horse-drawn carriage.
  • Stroll, hike, or climb among the park’s 130 miles of hiking trails that present unsurpassed views of a fiord, glacial lakes, and mountain peaks that repeat to the horizon.
  • Visit Sand Beach, a sandy crescent with cliffs rising on each side.  The views won’t disappoint, even if the chilly water does. 

You may go to Maine with the intention of eating lobster rolls every day, but be prepared to be tempted otherwise.  A group of creative restaurateurs take true pride in their craft and will offer you the best in seafood, locally grown produce, and local cheeses.  You’ll also find French bistro, authentic Mexican, tapas and Cuban cuisine – all influenced by local ingredients.  Three award-winning micro-breweries, a shop featuring tastings of artisanal vinegars and olive oil, and an organic farm run by the local college round out the itinerary for foodies.

For the best places to eat on a visit to Mount Desert Island, the Web site OUR ACADIA offers detailed reviews.  You’ll also find tips on the best times to visit, the best kayaking guides, and eco-friendly inns.

But if you go, remember this warning: lobster in New York will never be the same.


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