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On a Roll

How a lobster glut in Maine has democratized, and energized, crustacean cuisine in New York.

When Ben Sargent was 6 years old, he devoured a two-pound lobster, so impressing his parents that they let him eat a second. He polished it off with a glass of milk. That night, he projectile-vomited on his 4-year-old cousin, with whom he was sharing a bed. “It was like a bad horror movie,” Sargent, now 32, recalls. “He was running down the hall screaming, just coated in pink lobster. I swore I’d never eat lobster again, and look at me now.”

We’re in his tiny, low-ceilinged basement studio apartment in Greenpoint, surrounded by lobsters and other watery memorabilia: surfboards, fishing rods, and water skis; signs from a neighborhood chowder shack he used to own; pictures in frames he made out of lobster claws; a fish tank aswim with tailless mutants the local pet store gives him.

Sargent was to the water born. His father is a Woods Hole science writer and former director of the Baltimore Aquarium, and his grandfather was head of fisheries in Massachusetts. Though Ben came to New York eleven years ago intending to be a sculptor, after surfing in the Rockaways and finding the urban-ocean incongruity thrilling, he gave in to his birthright. He launched Hurricane Hopeful (his former chowder joint), an Internet radio show called “Catch It, Cook It & Eat It,” and, last year, the Brooklyn Fishing Derby. And since the beginning of the year, inspired after interviewing the owners of the Red Hook Lobster Pound on his radio show, he has been running a self-consciously underground lobster-roll business out of his apartment.

Tonight, as we talk, he periodically glances at his BlackBerry and reads incoming texts. This is how orders are placed. Sargent only gives out his number after screening a new customer through his Brooklyn Urban Anglers Association page on Facebook. A text comes in from Yana, a regular who drives from Brighton Beach for her fix: “I want to satisfy my lobster-roll craving.”

“This is when I love it,” Sargent says. “This is when it all pays off. She better not come with her boyfriend.”

At first, Sargent served customers right out of his living room, but in February the Fire Department shut him down for illegal use of propane. “That was kind of awesome, I have to say, because I didn’t get the feeling that they hated me,” Sargent says. “The chief was the only one who was grumpy about it.” Sargent made lobster rolls for the whole crew (the chief declined).

Now, when Sargent receives an order, he tells the customer to walk around the block a few times, while he jumps up and starts working at his stove—toasting a buttered, top-sliced bun, carefully selecting “the perfect combination” of claw, knuckle, and tail meat dressed in a secret preparation, and brushing the whole thing with garlicky butter—then heads upstairs and outside. Beside a nondescript wall nearby, he hands off the food and palms the payment in a quick, discreet transaction.

Sargent has turned the underground nature of his enterprise into a branding strategy. He calls himself Dr. Claw and the Lobstah Pushah, and sometimes dresses up like a cartoon drug dealer (track suit, gold chains, a gold-painted lobster-claw medallion). The act, combined with the unimpeachable excellence of his lobster roll, has spread his renown across the East River. One day, he took his two hot plates to Al Roker’s midtown production-company offices to make 40 lobster rolls; normally, such a gig would be too corporate for his underground image, but for Al he made an exception. Another evening, a movie-star couple came to Greenpoint, toured the basement, and then stood on the street outside eating their lobster rolls. “They were like, ‘This is fucking amazing; this is why we come to Brooklyn.’”

Sargent is only the most theatrical incarnation of a curious phenomenon reshaping New York City’s relationship with lobsters: Distant, seemingly unrelated events—environmental, financial, and behavioral—are recasting the highbrow shellfish of yore into inexpensive street food. The Red Hook Lobster Pound is selling live lobsters trucked direct from Maine and drawing two-hour lines for its $15 lobster rolls at the Brooklyn Flea Market. East Village–based Luke’s Lobster, which also trucks its product straight from Maine, is going Red Hook one (dollar) better, selling its lobster roll for $14. The democratized trap-to-table lobster has arrived.

Lunch is winding down at Pearl Oyster Bar, and Trevor Corson, the Brooklyn-based author of the definitive pop-lobster book, The Secret Life of Lobsters, sets a MacBook on our table and cues up a video. Corson, 40, worked as a sternman on a Maine lobster boat for two years. Today, he has come to the West Village to talk lobsters and play me an unusual sex tape, featuring rare footage captured by a German documentary team.