Lobster Rolls: Mayonnaise or Butter?

He said: There are few immutable truths in life: 1. We eventually grow so dotty that during TV commercials we forget what show we’re watching. (Come on, don’t be ashamed: raise your hand if you’re already with me on this.) 2. Kids have this preternatural ability to scream holy hell, which they wield with shock-and-awe precision, at the exact moment I wander into The Gap, making you look like Psycho Mom Serial Killer. And 3. Nothing, but nothing is the rightful and appropriate condiment for lobster rolls except mayonnaise.

I’m not just talking about any mayonnaise, I mean Hellmann’s. I guess you can take the boy out of New England, but you can’t take New England out of the boy. Since I was a kid, summer was all about clam shacks and lobster pounds. I strung together the weeks, filled with teary mornings at day camp (because, yes, I missed my mother—so sue me) and afternoons of cutting the grass and sweeping the basement, knowing that on weekends my reward for generally acting like a Stepford Child was a big-ass container of fried clams or, on special occasions, a cardboard box cradling a mayonnaise-enrobed lobster roll in a top-split toasted bun, a boat of french fries, and a Fanta orange soda.

Since then, I’ve deigned to eat all kinds of lobster rolls made with all kinds of ingredients, as if these interloping cooks thought they were actually making them better. Although I find it an affront to my Northern sensibility, I can handle the additions of minced celery, carrots, or other vegetables to give lobster rolls a crunch factor. And I can tolerate—barely—the folding in of herbs, from tarragon and parsley to chives and savory for greenery. But I draw the line at anything but Hellmann’s dressing my seafaring love bug. Come on, people! I’ve suffered through, and am vehemently, trenchantly opposed to, aïoli mayonnaise, chipotle mayonnaise, lime mayonnaise, and that dreaded of all dreaded dressings: melted butter.

Now I love butter-drenched lobsters as much as the next guy. Maybe even more. Just consider the physical evidence of my ever-expanding girth. But the only way I want to treat my lobster to a butter bath is with a cracker in one hand and a pick in the other while wearing a plastic bib with a bright-red ocean cockroach on it that’s saying, “Eat me!” If I want the gustatory equivalent of a butter-drenched lobster roll, I’d eat some bread with my dinner.

Ponder this: If God meant for man to eat lobster rolls with nothing but butter, he wouldn’t have had the forethought to create Richard Hellmann, who in 1905 gave unto the world his wife’s secret recipe for mayonnaise at their Columbus Avenue deli. (It’s what my friend Deborah used to call “the true Jewish Manna.”) Perhaps the single greatest invention since white bread (by the way The One’s mother made him mayo sandwiches, she felt it was that good), mayonnaise is the perfect mate for lobster. It adds luxury to opulence. It coddles the succulent, sweet meat—which takes on a whole different flavor dimension when chilled—and the slight vinegar bite cuts through, making sure it’s not just an indiscriminate orgy in your mouth. Butter, on the other hand, is like a French tart who spritzes on more eau de cologne and goes in for the kill. Or rather, overkill.

She said: I’ve been something of a butter slut since I was little.

As a child, I slathered butter unsparingly on slices of still-warm white bread my mom baked from scratch. I schmeared it on corn on the cob—over and over and over seeing as it insisted on sliding right off. I plunked heaping lumps of it on boiled new potatoes that’d been freshly dug from my grandma’s garden. And I lavished it on the steak that was our standing summer supper. I was no stranger to butter, and my bulging little belly showed it.

Although unlike some lucky kids I know who grew up in New England, lobster shacks around every curve, I grew up on a lobsterless landlocked farm in the Midwest. (Actually, it wasn’t quite entirely landlocked, not if you count the creek meandering along the northern boundary of our property. Although there were no crustaceans there. I know. I looked.) Lobster in any incarnation was far from commonplace in rural Iowa. It did, however, occasionally grace the menu of what passed for a fancy schmancy seafood restaurant about nine miles down the road, past the endless pastures that smelled of manure and the three stop lights in town.

Whenever my dad’s expense account allowed, we dined there, and my mom would unfailingly order the steamed cracked lobster. I always knew what she’d order before she’d even said a word to the waiter. Her anticipation was simply too great for something ordinary like steak. Her hair would be in rollers all afternoon, her dangly earrings set out hours in advance, and her demeanor less farmwife and more quietly, excitedly elegant.

Although a lovely, giving, truly altruistic woman, my mom, I don’t recall her ever offering me a bite of her steamed catch. Not that I ever thought to ask. I was too preoccupied, not just by her altered demeanor but by her dainty silver cup of drawn butter. I’d dip one saltine after another into it as I stared at this creature who was my mom and yet not my mom. I think it had everything to do with the lobster.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I encountered the concept of lobster on a roll. I’d been flipping through my dad’s collection of Gourmet magazines when the purported tussle between butter and mayonnaise described in the article stopped me in my tracks. Mayo? I’d long ago come to associate the buttery gilding of lobster with an almost hushed reverence. That people could consider lobster in the same casual notion as they did bologna or tinned tuna stunned me. The notion of entrusting something as sacrosanct as lobster to something as overwhelmingly artificial as Hellmann’s actually caused me quite some angst. Still does.

Truthfully, I can count on one hand the times I’ve eaten a lobster roll. I’ll let you guess as to how I insisted it play out.

This past Christmas, E and I snuck off to Jamaica, just the two of us, to exchange wedding vows. It was a relatively last-minute affair, so I knew only four days in advance the dress I would wear. Yet I’d known for weeks what I’d order for dinner that evening. It made me unspeakably happy, that grilled lobster. I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t the lobster. It was the ceremony. The bubbles. The sea air. The Jamaican mojo. The lifetime of bliss before us. But you’re wrong. It was the lobster. Grilled and naked, save for a simple brush with, well, not mayo.

Whom do you play for? Team Mayo or Team Butter?

Photo © 2010. Alexander Cowan. All rights reserved.

Comments
Comments
  1. Allison Parker says:

    Top-split bun, toasted. No question. As for the rest, I have to say that although I do (as LC’s managing editor) realize which side of “HSSS” my bread is buttered on, I am purely Team Butter. Call me a French tart if you must.

    • David Leite says:

      FRENCH TART! And traitor. Et tu, Allison?

    • Bob Lewis says:

      Here’s how it is from Newport, R.I., where I was born and grew up…

      1. Cracked hot/warm lobster…butter and lots of it
      2. Cold lobster in rolls…Hellmanns
      3. Warm lobster in toasted roll…Hellmann’s with a dash of butter

      Maybe…a little parsley…a little cucumber diced…a little red onion diced…oh!!! The memories…the ocean…I’m landlocked in Kentucky now.

  2. Ling Teo says:

    If I say Hellmann’s for cold lobster, and drawn butter for freshly steamed, does it count?? Because I am a little pig for both. Oh and make that a toasted top-split baguette, please. The kind they use for bahn mi sammiches…

  3. Melinda says:

    Growing up in the South, the only mayo allowed in my mama’s kitchen (and now mine) was Miracle Whip – my step grandmother swore by Duke’s. I will admit I have never tried Hellmanns. However, I will admit to being totally Team Butter (unsalted from grass-fed cows, please).

    Being near the coast, we had access to tons of seafood. The Lobster and the Crab were sacred, though. Drawn butter is the only way to eat these wonderful creatures.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Amen, Melinda, to never having tried Hellmann’s, to butter from grass-fed cows, and to your continued worship of the lobster.

  4. Cindi Kruth says:

    Butter all the way. Mayo may make a nice little lobster salad, but a warm, sweet, buttery lobster roll oozing from its toasted, split-top bun, is my recollection of Cape Cod. It is the true destiny of this most yummy of sea critters.

  5. Anne L says:

    I’m a Hellmann’s whore for sure. Nothing but the best.

    • David Leite says:

      Anne, a woman after my own heart. I feel like I’m stumping for mayo and Hellmann’s—out to beat Team Renee and her bevy of butter beauties.

  6. NANCY C says:

    Oh, no question. It’s gotta be butter and whipped butter at that. Boy now you’ve gone and done it…..my mouth is watering for a piece of tail.

  7. Stacey K says:

    Mayo is the only way to go and it has to be Kraft! I would normally say real mayo, but I’m sort of fond of the mayo w/olive oil now…I think I may have converted! Now do I get a tasty lobster roll as my reward?

    • David Leite says:

      Stacey, you spout words of wisdom. You are truly a remarkable woman. (Sounds like a fortune cookie, doesn’t it?)

  8. Sofia says:

    I would have to agree with mayo as long as it is homemade. Cold lobster has to be with mayo, Now warm lobster, just plain, no mayo, no butter. Let’s enjoy the pure taste of the creature. Even though I would still save the tail for a sandwich or salad with mayo and enjoy the head just plain, on its own!

    • David Leite says:

      Sofia, right on. Just had my lunch: cold lobster salad with mayo. Perfect for this perfect day.

  9. Jenya says:

    I always think of the filling in the lobster roll as a lobster salad. And you can’t dress a salad in buttah. Mayo all the way.

  10. RisaG says:

    Team Mayo all the way, David. I love Hellmann’s . It rocks. I also have spent time in New England as a child and we always had lobster rolls with mayo, a tiny bit of celery, and that was it. I have eaten them in Kennebunkport, Bar Harbor, NH, Cape Cod and they were always made with mayo.

    I also love a good steamed lobstah with clarified butter but not on a Lobstah Roll!

  11. Judy says:

    I am a true Cape Codda, Hellmann’s is a must for cold lobster, and drawn butter for hot! What is the nonsense of butter on a lobster roll? And of course the top split hot dog roll, grilled to a golden brown. Actually, that is what I am having for lunch. Eat your hearts out!!!

    • David Leite says:

      Judy, I’m from the South Coast, so I hear you. That the way it always ha been (and always will be) in my house.

  12. paseo says:

    I was a Best Foods mayo baby growing up in SoCal—same difference—but when they put sugar in the mix they lost me. Now it’s Duke’s all the way when I’m too lazy to make my own (which is most of the time). As for lobster rolls, if the lobster is really fresh, naked on a butter toasted bun, nothing more.

  13. Dustin Kikuchi says:

    While I was born in Hawaii I spent my years growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Hellmann’s all the way on a PROPER lobster roll — that is, as has been said, split top roll (though for me either toasted or not works) and cold lobster with Hellmann’s. Nothing else.

    Leave the butter for the steamed lobster!

    • David Leite says:

      Dustin, I grew up on the South Coast of Massachusetts, and it was always mayo. Steamed lobster? Nev-ah, ev-ah a doubt: drawn butter. Same with—what else?—steamed clams.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Hellman’s Mayo, lightly toasted split top, potato chips, side of fried clams dipped in mayo, ICE COLD MOXIE, coast of New Hampshire or Maine, too die.

    • David Leite says:

      Pray tell, Elizabeth. What moxie is—besides the usual definition of nerve and determination?

      • RisaG says:

        David, Moxie is a sarsaparilla type soda that is mainly sold in New England. My FIL was from Brookline, MA and lived most of his life in Long Island, NY, and he would send to the factory in ME for a case of Moxie, until his dying day.

        It has a very interesting taste. Not like Dr. Pepper, not like Birches, a taste all its own. I have never had a taste for it but I have had some when I was around him.

  15. Megan says:

    Team butter for sure. I grew up in CT where we have real, hot, buttery lobster rolls – none of this mayonnaise nonsense.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      “None of this mayonnaise nonsense.” Words to live by.

      • David Leite says:

        You’re just saying that because there are soooooooo many more mayo mavens than butter lovers.

  16. The split-top buns are a given. There can be no substitute.

    David, I’m a big fan of mayonnaise — all kinds: Hellman’s, homemade, with or without garlic or minced herbs — but I would no more put mayo on a lobster roll than I would pour on catsup. Really, what’s the point of taking a miraculous ingredient like just-steamed lobster then dumbing-it-down to the level of chicken, tuna or even egg salad?

    Renee, I’m with you 100% (even if means David won’t let me write for him anymore).

    Just so this doesn’t become an argument about geographical differences, my favorite MAINE lobster rolls are made in Wiscasset, and it’s strictly butter there. If you ever go there, prepare to wait on line — and make sure to order some of their fried big-belly clams to go with that lobster roll.

    • David Leite says:

      Gary, I nothing to say….

      • That’s pretty diplomatic (considering the fact that you instigated this butter-vs-mayo bouhaha).

        • David Leite says:

          I pride myself on being moderate and supremely fair.

          • To be fair (and just to confuse matters further), I have to say that the lobster rolls I’ve liked best were not cold lobster—they were hot and perfectly paired with melted butter.

            Melted butter on ANYTHING cold is just wrong.

            Perhaps this discussion should be about hot vs. cold, instead of which saturated fat one chooses to apply to one’s crustacean…

            If so, let me announce right off that I’m firmly in the pro-hot camp.

            • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

              An interesting point. Hot. Goes without saying. Although I feel that hot-cold and butter-lobster are sort of corollaries to one another…

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Solidarity in numbers, Gary. Appreciate you sharing your dignified tastes.
      And I think I have to get me to Wiscasset. Road trip?

      • It’s quite a trip from NY. We drove there, just to have lunch, but wound up arriving at four in the afternoon. Still, it was worth it — and, since we were so far from home anyway, continued on to Acadia (also well worth the trip).

  17. nakedbeet says:

    I’m with Megan. I think CT is team butter. Just had another CT friend tell me the same a few weeks ago. But if it has to be cold and there has to be mayo and if you’re not making homemade milk mayo (A MUST!) then Hellman’s.

  18. Katie K says:

    I’m with you, David.

  19. mayoboy says:

    I’m glad this question has not come up before. I’d have had to look upon old friends who opted for butter on a lobster roll with the same jaundiced eye I reserve for those who use ketchup on a hot dog. Now, steamed lobster is totally another story.

    • David Leite says:

      Mayoboy, so glad to have you in my corner. BTW, totally love Roll Magazine. The latest issue is great. The One and I have to get a portrait done by Nadine Robbins.

  20. Sean says:

    I’m with Ling: Mayonnaise (major brand white stuff) for cold rolls, drawn butter for hot lobster. And of course split-top buns, but they absolutely must be white hot dog rolls with exposed sides, griddled in butter (that way you still get butter in the equation). I got obsessed with them last year. Lobster is expensive out here in CA, and the buns are damn near impossible to find.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Thanks, Sean. I can almost sort of understand where you’re coming from on the cold lobster, although I fully appreciate your stance on the bun. Mind sharing which brand of buns that you’re referring to? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to know.

  21. Jeanne says:

    I’m a Hellman’s girl all the way, but on lobster? Mon dieu!
    Please pass the drawn butter. Hold the roll.

  22. Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

    Sanity speaking.

    • If you and I weren’t in complete agreement, Renee, I’d suspect that “Sanity speaking” was meant as an aspersion on the rest of us. (I don’t use emoticons, but if I did there’d be some sort of winking thingie here)

      But back to lobster rolls: when people describe their “lobster salad” rolls, there is almost inevitably something else besides mayo. I’m of the school that says the lobster should be the primary flavor — so there should be an absolute minimum of distractions from that flavor. A tiny amount of salt, perhaps (‘though if salted butter is used, no more is needed). No celery or onion. No herbs or spices, with the possible exception of a little tarragon.

      It’s really simple: Lobstah, buttah.

  23. Martha in KS says:

    Here in Totoville lobsters aren’t regular fare. I once had a delicious lobstuh roll when vacationing in Massachusetts and I think it was made with mayo. Lobster tails must have melted butter for dipping. Now that you’ve made me hungry for shellfish I’m going to head to the grocery store where frozen whole lobsters are $10 this week. BTW – I live in a Hellman’s-only household.

  24. RisaG says:

    I was thinking about this. I remember that my favorite Lobster Roll was not even in New England, it was in Nova Scotia! Yes, Nova Scotia. In Dover. West Dover actually. It came on homemade french bread and barely had any mayo and a tiny bit of celery and it came with homemade fries. it was TDF. Sooo Good. It was expensive but everything up there is – even pizza. The 14% tax will kill you up there.

    • David Leite says:

      Oh, I had some outstanding food in Nova Scotia. In Halifax we went to Fid (amazing foie gras), and had great meals in Chester, in Lunenburg, where we dined at Fleur de Sel (wonderful mussels and fish), and in Wolfville, where we ate at Tempest by Michael Howell. Everything about that night at Tempest was fantastic. And we’re talking about 5 or 6 years ago, and I still remember. Didn’t have any lobster, though.

  25. Sheila B. says:

    I do both. Lobster mixed with mayo & celery and the roll lightly buttered (well, honestly, not too lightly).

    By the way, Hellmann’s in many Western States (AK- for sure) went by the name of “BEST”, years ago. Not sure if that is still the case.

    See– when you bring out the Hellmanns, you bring out the BEST! And, it’s made by Best Foods.

  26. Pam P says:

    Mayo for a lobster roll; butter for a whole or tail endeavor! I do remember being surprised at the sight of my first lobster roll on the Cape all those years ago. I had no idea what it was, but I was happy to see lobster for less then $10 and then to see it dressed in mayo? What was this thing, my 19-year-old, California-girl soul said? And then I ate it, and I became a believer. Mayo and split-top bun (also another first at the time) and that is the only way to eat a lobster roll. I ate so many mayo-dressed lobster rolls and butter drenched whole lobsters that summer, I have never be the same (thank god!) :)

    • David Leite says:

      Pam, thanks for chiming in. BTW, love your gravatar! I wish more of our readers would get one.

  27. Ms. Producer A says:

    A perfect debate for the season. Last week I spent 8 days in Maine trying out every shack and lobster pound in the state. One little stand in Bar Harbor tried to satisfy every palate. I was asked the following: Mayo, butter, Miracle Whip, or naked? I was momentarily confused that there were even choices, and one of them was naked, but went for mayo. However, perhaps it was the location because it was the only stand in Maine where I was even asked a preference (and it was a stand, not a cafe or restaurant), so I can only assume that the entire state would vote for mayo. But another quandry at a lobster pound, I was further challenged when asked hard shell or soft? Hmmm?? Discuss.

    • David Leite says:

      “..so I can only assume that the entire state would vote for mayo.” See, I have an entire state on my side! But hard versus soft shell, that’s a new one on me. They were talking lobsters not crabs, right?

  28. Dan Kraan, LC Community Moderator says:

    I’ve heard of hard or soft shell lobster. It’s been so long, I can’t remember whether they were talking sex or age, or… whatever.

    Regular lobster? Just plain steamed. No butter, dressing or any other distractions. Lobster salad? Lightly lime teased, full fat mayo. But the buns (actually croissants) would take a rich light-salt butter. I’d serve them on the side of the salad (with my version of devilled eggs) to get the best of both worlds! I may actually make that tonight—celebrating another year younger, today.

  29. Hannah B. says:

    If anyone’s still counting, my vote is for Hellman’s all the way! I was raised in Bah-ston and there IS no other way to eat a lobster roll or else it ceases to be a lobster roll, so all you butter people had better come up with a new name for your creation, and stop using OURS! Go, David!

  30. Carol Hargis says:

    @ Ms. Producer A & David: Soft shell is referring to young Maine lobsters, also called chickens. Those, when boiled or steamed, are much easier to eat because you do not need to crack the shells, if you know what you are doing. You can tear & peel, & thereby devour much faster. The price for chickens is usually much lower. I think they are lobsters that have recently molted, so their shells are not calcified or toughened yet. They are at high risk of predation in this stage. (Just like a soft-shell crab stage). They are the smallest in length that can be legally harvested. I like them, as I can eat 2 or 3, & do so faster…the rest of my tablemates are not waiting on me to finish the course. I also don’t walk (or wobble) away from the table with as many cuts. I am hands-on when it comes to lobster; I’ve been perfecting my mad skills at this my all-time favorite food since I was 3 years old. I have a a photo of me on cape Cod in 1963 eating my very first. David & I are both “1/2 centenarians” now.

    • David Leite says:

      I figured Ms. Producer A was referring to recently molted lobsters (just had two this past Labor Day!), but I never knew they offered them as a choice at shacks and pounds. Really interesting.

  31. Lisa says:

    Okay people…This is a beautifully written as well as accurate post (from a Mainer’s point of view), and one of the best I’ve ever read concerning Maine lobster rolls.

    I’m willing to try and get to the bottom of this debate, or the top, if you will. Seriously, it’s all about the sweet & salty, buttery, crispy, yet soft “split-top” bun. That’s the real secret here. A buttery grilled Nissan or Country Kitchen split-top roll and thick, (extra heavy) Hellmann’s mayo give you the best of both worlds. Oh yes, combined you’ll have sweet, so rich and just exquisite! The balance of flavors with lobster is very delicate. Add nothing else, not even salt and pepper!

    Forget about drawn butter, we serve that only with hot steamed lobster and clams. A bit of shredded iceberg for crunch if you must, BUT celery, tarragon and what have you. It’s just wrong, all wrong….

    Cheers!

    Lisa ……from Maine ;)

    PS. Renee and David are also correct about the Hellmann’s mayo. Accept no substitutes!

    • David Leite says:

      Lisa, well that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?! I did neglect to mention that the rolls I adore are drenched on the outside in butter and then grilled.

      One small, er, huge correction: Renee is adamantly opposed to mayo-especially Hellmann’s. (Heathen!)

  32. tara pereira says:

    Definitely mayo (Hellmann’s) with a butter-griddled split top hot dog bun. I agree about adding lettuce for a little crunch. Growing up in Little Compton, RI, I didn’t know anyone who had lobster rolls with only butter. Now if my lobster is steamed, then it’s melted butter all the way.

  33. t. fred says:

    Shakespeare was, yet again, right: “much ado about….” It’s a soft, top-split, buttered-and-toasted-on-the-outside bun. Period. And it’s MAYO. Period. Truthfully, this is a non-issue and not really open to debate

    t.fred
    Osterville, MA

    • Clearly, this is a case of fundamentalists vs. fundamentalists of opposing faiths. Such issues cannot be resolved by logic, and it is impossible to change the opinions of those on the other side — unless there’s a purge of Inquisitionish proportions (which has the salutary effect of leaving much more lobster for the winning side).

      I have no problem with that.

      (as long as the butter side is victorious).

  34. t. fred says:

    madame tarte française … i hate to sound like one of those pains who think that they have the only way to prepare a dish, BUT … again … a lobster roll is PROPERLY prepared by toasting a bun (a soft-sided bun … certainly not baguette!!! mon dieu) that has been generously buttered on the outside … and filled with mayonnaise de homard/homard avec mayonnaise … no celery … no onion … no nothing else. period. (MAYBE some ground black pepper but no additional salt other than what is in the mayo).

    ps … sausalito, ca, resident now but spent over 30 summers in osterville on the cape … buttered, soft-sided roll … lobster mayonnaise … MAYBE some pepper … THAT’S IT!!!

    so, ya’ll … how do you like me now???

  35. t. fred says:

    one final note about the lobster roll issue … bottom line … if you’re into the butter thing … by all means, go for it … let’s face it … one should eat what one enjoys … and certainly not be dictated to by a sausalito/ca know-it-all (me!!!). now, everybody happy ???

  36. fIA says:

    Never met a lobster roll I didn’t like~!

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