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On a Roll

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And almost nobody has anything nice to say about the old guard, like Pearl Oyster Bar’s Rebecca Charles, who claims to have brought the lobster roll to New York in 1997. Her roll, which sells for $27 and comes with a pile of shoestring fries, was an upscale treatment of the original: large chunks of wholesaler-sourced meat, lavishly mixed with Hellman’s mayonnaise, on a top-sliced Pepperidge Farm bun. “I almost blame it on Rebecca,” Sargent says. “Everyone, instead of going to Maine, took her rendition of Maine as it. But that lobster roll is wrong.”

Charles’s lobster roll became the city’s benchmark, spawning a host of imitations, not least those served by her former minority partner Mary Redding, who left to start Mary’s Fish Camp, and sous-chef Ed McFarland, who opened Ed’s Lobster Bar. She sued both of them.

“I think Mary’s is the worst in the city,” says Sargent. “First of all, they put a piece of lettuce in. Who likes to eat a piece of lettuce, unless it’s in a salad? Nobody. It doesn’t taste good. And celery, not only does it not taste good, it tastes bad. I hate celery. Anything you see in a lobster roll extra is just to fill up the space. What happens is a lot of these guys, in order to charge $30 for a lobster roll, they have to make it into something more than it is. Then they give you a fork. How could even Pearl Oyster Bar—I love her, by the way, so I don’t want to say anything about it—a woman who dedicates her entire life to Maine and the Maine experience, serve it with a fork? ’Cause then you’re not getting the wonderful toasted-bun piece. To me, it’s complete insanity.”

Charles, for what it’s worth, is unimpressed by her new competition. “These young men come into town proclaiming they make the best lobster roll. It’s a little bit too much testosterone,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for thirteen years. You tend to get philosophical about the new gun in town.”

But the Lobster Pusher can’t help himself. With a customer on the way, he stands at his oven, brushing a couple of buns with hot butter and tossing them on a flattop spread across two burners. While he’s willing to throw a bone to Luke (“I was thrilled to find out how good their roll is”), whose $14 price he deliberately matches, he scoffs at the buns that Luke and Red Hook use. “I’m like, clearly you don’t have taste buds,” Sargent says. “What a waste of time and money.”

What buns are those that Sargent is using? Pepperidge Farm, he says, then stops himself. “If you don’t mind, don’t write that. I don’t want them to start using my bun.”

He says that Povich recently asked him about his bun source. “I’m like, ‘What, are you going to start using my buns now?’ This is my fucking lobster roll. I laugh, because they do the dumbest things. I love her. I hope we can work together in the future. But they drain their lobster juice.”

Why is that so terrible?

He doesn’t answer.

After loading the buns with meat, he brushes more butter on top, then sprinkles them with something. What is it? “I use Old Bay, but again that’s a secret.” He tears off pieces of foil and wraps the rolls.

“I don’t want to talk about this. These are my secrets. These are the little things that make my roll literally on the level of crack.” Then he runs his rolls upstairs for the handoff.


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