Neptune Oyster in Boston and Red's Eats in Main, on which this recipe is based, are my two favorite lobster rolls, and both give the option of butter or mayo. Offering that choice means they can't hide anything about the quality of their lobster.
Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree

My brother Lou was only 11 when I left for college. For the next 10 years, our relationship centered around catching up at holidays. These semiannual encounters always included a recital of his college classes and the various dishes he'd been slinging at his food-truck job, but the real Lou, the guy towering over me with a five-o'clock shadow, remained a bit of a mystery.

Last summer, a family friend needed crew for a sailing trip along the mid-coast of Maine, from Rockland to Mount Desert Island. Lou was on summer break, and the timing worked out for me to leave New York between cookbook projects, so we were pressed into service. Here we were, adult siblings, strangers of a sort, about to be quartered on a Bristol 45.5 yacht for the better part of two weeks.

The craggy coast of Maine tumbles into the placid waters of Penobscot Bay and Mt. Desert Narrows; lined with spruce trees, the glassy plane is broken only by boat or sea creature. And it's dotted infinitely with lobster traps. The buoyed markers hide in the reflected sunlight on the water's surface, waiting to catch a rudder. Most of our days were spent at the helm or bow scouting for these traps or below deck, cooking the crew's meals in a 3- x 4-foot kitchen outfitted with a four-burner gimbaled stove that swung on an axis so pots and pans stayed level even as the boat bobbed.

When we got off watch, Lou and I would go ashore for lobster. Knowing that some joints use frozen meat or cook off the less-than-live guys for their lobster rolls, I'd always been leery of them, preferring to eat a couple of just-cooked chicks (1-pound lobsters) in the rough.

Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Mary-Frances Heck

But on these quick trips to shore, there usually was not enough time to mess with eating whole lobsters. So we'd swing by a shack and order one roll and a pint of local suds. Grabbing a seat at a picnic table, we'd tear the roll in half and take turns sipping and munching, considering the characteristics of each mini meal, chatting on common ground. We came to know when the meat was freshly shucked and perfectly cooked, and if the lobsters had come right from the ocean or had languished in a lobster pound.

The best rolls were a study in contrast: a warm bun, buttered and crisped on the outside and fluffy-soft on the inside; enough, but not too much, warmish lobster meat lightly dressed in salted butter or mayonnaise (each has its merits) and chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces so the dressing coats each morsel lightly but completely. The best-sized lobster rolls might make more of a snack than meal—2 to 3 ounces of meat in a 4- to 5-inch-long split-top bun. The whole thing could be enjoyed before the brisk coastal air put a chill on the experience, and the strolling from one shack to the next didn't break the bank.

Through this ritual of I-cut-you-pick a couple of lobster rolls each afternoon, Lou and I found a place to dig deeper than our brief holiday catch-ups even allowed. We got to experience each other, nearly all grown up.

The Lobster Breakdown

Pulling meat from whole shelled lobster is a snap with these simple tricks.

Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree
Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree
Credit: Photo: Greg Dupree

LOBSTER CLAWS: Wiggle "thumb" to crack it away from claw; remove thumb shell and any cartilage. Cut rest of shell with scissors; remove whole claw meat.

LOBSTER TAIL Cut straight down the underside of the translucent shell. Open shell, and remove meat. Remove and discard dark vein running along tail's curve.

LOBSTER LEGS Savvy lobster lovers know some of the sweetest meat is in the little legs. Snap them off and suck out meat and juice, or use a rolling pin to press out the meat.