Lobster Rolls: Mayonnaise or Butter?

It’s lobster roll season and the old debate surfaces. Do you like yours with mayonnaise or butter? Our two food contrarians battle it out.

A lobster roll with mayonnaise and chips in a pink basket
: David Leite

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 shanties, lobster shacks, and picnic tables. 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 split-top toasted hot-dog 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, hot sauce, and that dreaded of all-dreaded dressings: melted clarified butter.

☞ 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.

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 lobster meat 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.

Richard Hellmann's Deli, circa 1913
: Hellmann’s

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.

David Leite's signature
A lobster roll in a cardboard sleeve with a little lettuce and a lemon wedge in the background.
: dbvirago

She Said:

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

As a child, I’d slather butter unsparingly on slice after slice of bread my mom had baked from scratch. It was always while the bread was still warm from the oven. And it was always with a sorta mesmerized stare as the butter slunk into the nooks and crannies and teetered past the edge of the crust. I’d schmear it on corn on the cob—over and over and over again seeing as the butter insisted on sliding right off. I plunked heaps of it on the boiled new potatoes that my grandma had dug fresh from her garden earlier that day during summer. And I’d lavish it all over the surface of the cheap sirloin steaks my dad would occasionally grill. I was no stranger to butter. And my bulging little belly showed it.

☞ I’ve been something of a butter slut since I was little.

Unlike some lucky kids I know who grew up in New England with lobster shacks around each curve, I grew up on a lobsterless landlocked farm in the midwest. (Actually, it wasn’t exactly landlocked 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 wasn’t commonplace in rural Iowa. Although it was on the menu at what passed for a fancy-schmancy restaurant that was about nine miles down the road, past the endless pastures that smelled of manure and beyond the three stop lights that constituted our nearest town.

A couple times a year, my dad would take us along to a business dinner there. And my mom would unfailingly order the steamed cracked lobster. I’d know early in the day, before she’d even mentioned our reservation, that we were heading to town. Her hair would be in rollers all afternoon. Her dangly earrings set out hours in advance. Her demeanor less fatigued farmwife and more excitedly elegant. And I think it had everything to do with the lobster. Her anticipation was simply too great for something ordinary like cod.

Although my mom has always been and remains a truly altruistic woman, I don’t recall her ever offering me a bite of her steamed catch. Not that I ever thought to ask her. I was too distracted, 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 that creature who was my mom and yet not my mom.

Gourmet magazine iwth a lobster and a lobster pot on the cover

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 tussle between butter and mayonnaise described in the article stopped me in my tracks. Mayo? I’d long ago come to regard the buttery gilding of lobster with an almost hushed reverence. That people could consider lobster in the same casual manner as they did tinned tuna stunned me.

The notion of entrusting something as sacrosanct as lobster to something as overwhelmingly artificial as Hellmann’s actually caused me some angst. Still does. I can count on one hand the times I’ve eaten a lobster roll. I’ll let you guess as to how I insisted the condiment of choice played out.

Years later, when I snuck off at the last moment to Jamaica to elope, I knew only four days in advance the casual slip dress that I would wear. Yet I’d known for weeks what I’d order for dinner that evening. And it made me unspeakably happy. I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t the lobster. It was the ceremony. The bubbles. The salty air. The Jamaican mojo. But you’re wrong. It was the lobster. Grilled and naked save for a simple brush with, well, not mayo.

renee Schettler Rossi's signature

When it comes to lobster rolls, what do you prefer? Mayonnaise or butter?

Tell us below in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. @ 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. “..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?

  5. 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!) 🙂

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