On a Roll

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

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.

On the screen, a male lobster, hiding out in a shelter at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is excitedly flicking his swimmerets, symmetrical lines of tiny fins under his tail. A female comes in behind him, and they warily tap claws and sniff each other by waving their antennules. Then the female lies on her side and molts, wiggling out of her shell. “She’s soft as jelly right now,” Corson says. At this point, the male climbs on top of her and inserts his two penises (count ’em) into her seminal receptacle. Eight seconds later, he is done.

Owner Rebecca Charles comes out of the kitchen in chef’s whites, and Corson nods at his laptop: “Lobster porn. Want to see it?”

“Lobster porn?” Charles says, as she settles in for a viewing. “Nasty.”

“If it weren’t for all these lobsters having all this sex,” Corson says, in a game attempt to justify our gratuitous viewing, “we wouldn’t be having all these lobster rolls in New York.”

Which is sort of true. But the lobster glut is a little more complicated than that. Over the last 30 years, the annual catch has more than tripled, from 22 million pounds to 78 million pounds. The proliferation is an instance of environmental disaster begetting environmental boon: The overfishing of cod decimated the largest group of natural predators of young lobsters, resulting in many more lobsters reaching edible/fertile adulthood. At the same time, stringent conservation measures, including a minimum size and maximum size of keepable lobsters, have made the Maine-lobster fishery a rare story of successful sustainability. (As a result of Maine’s maximum-size limits, the perennial New York tabloid feature about some ancient, outsize lobster being liberated by peta from a hapless restaurant invariably involves lobsters caught elsewhere. George the Giant Lobster—140 years old and twenty pounds—freed by Gramercy’s City Crab and Seafood last year, hails from Newfoundland; Craig the Crustacean, a comparably large centenarian sprung from Halu Japanese Restaurant & Grill in Dyker Heights one month later, is from Canada. Both were released into the relative safety of Maine waters.)

Compounding the lobster surplus, an unlikely financial event halfway around the world triggered an implosion in demand. When 2008 began, Maine lobstermen were selling more than half their catch to Canada, where three large processors were on growth binges and willing to pay a premium. These Canadian processors were backed by seafood-savvy banks in Iceland, and when the Icelandic banking system crashed in October of that year, the processors suddenly lost their lines of credit. They shut down completely for several weeks and never fully rebounded. Suddenly, there was more catch than the market could absorb, just when an increasing volume of competing product, such as warm-water lobster tails from South America, was hitting the market. The price of Maine lobster at the dock dropped from $5 to $2.50 a pound.

It was a low point for the crustaceans that had once been shorthand for a gaudy sort of high life. Then again, in Maine, lobsters—or “bugs”—used to be regarded as poor man’s food. The shift in lobster economics was about to bring the quaint roadside fast-food treatment known as the lobster roll to the city in a big way. Suddenly, a lobsterpreneur could drive to Maine, load up on cheap lobsters, and bring them back to New York for a profit.

“It’s a perfect confluence of two things in a cultural moment,” says Corson. “It’s the sudden affordability of lobster meat, and it’s this foodie trend of wanting to get back to artisanal food and its source.”

In late 2008, Susan Povich and Ralph Gorham were facing their own credit crisis. Povich, a lawyer (and the daughter of Maury), and Gorham, a custom-furniture-maker, had been planning to develop a building they owned near their home in Red Hook, and suddenly they couldn’t get financing.

Povich had spent summers in Bath, Maine, at the home of her grandfather, who kept kosher. Lobster in the house wasn’t an option, so growing up she made a point of eating at every possible lobster shack she could find. Gorham had grown up in Massachusetts and hung out around the docks.

Visiting Maine that Thanksgiving, they stopped to see some friends who lived in Portland. Lobsters were dirt cheap, and Povich and Gorham bought twenty pounds. “We brought it back, and sat at our table, and pigged out,” Povich says, “and Ralph turns to me and says, ‘Let’s open a lobster pound.’ The recession was hitting New Yorkers hard, and we felt we could bring them a luxury product at an affordable price.”

“People deserve to eat this,” Gorham told her.

The Red Hook Lobster Pound opened April 24, 2009, on Van Brunt Street, selling live lobsters Gorham drove down weekly on ice in the back of his Chevy Avalanche. On weekends, the couple sold lobster rolls at the Brooklyn Flea. “We were completely sideswiped” by their success, Povich recalls, as she answers her phone (ringtone: “Rock Lobster”) to field orders.

They were offering real Maine lobster, at $9 a pound. Their roll was then $14, and to go. And the style—big chunks of meat, with a restrained amount of homemade mayonnaise and scarcely noticeable celery on a top-sliced J.J. Nissen bun from Maine, finished with a dusting of paprika—was pretty damn close to the real thing. Scallions, “my only non-Maine thing, are just there for a little bite,” Povich says. She also offers a Connecticut-style buttered version of the roll.

Red Hook’s business took off. Having started with a $10,000 investment, they were cash-flow positive within a month. They bought a van (when Ralph was driving his Avalanche, lobsters were dying on the BQE), then a second, and now have nineteen employees. Gorham hasn’t stopped making farm tables, and Povich hasn’t quit lawyering yet, but they’re bringing 1,000 pounds of lobster down from Maine every week and recently expanded to Washington, D.C., via a truck selling lobster rolls.

Povich and Gorham weren’t alone in spotting an opportunity. In October, Luke’s Lobster opened on 7th Street in the East Village. Luke’s, too, owed its birth to the recession. Two years out of Georgetown, and working as a third-year analyst at CS Capital Advisors, Luke Holden saw his friends losing their jobs and started thinking about contingency plans. Holden is Maine-lobster royalty. His father, Jeff, a former lobsterman, owns Portland Shellfish, one of the two biggest processors in the state. Luke himself, while still in high school, built his own lobster boat and fished 150 traps.

Now, father and son saw an angle. With the family firm supplying the meat, there would be fewer middlemen. Luke’s could piggyback on the firm’s preexisting five-day-a-week truck deliveries, which meant the meat would be fresher (48 hours from boat to store) and cheaper—enough to allow a $14 lobster roll even with Manhattan rents.

The Holdens could offer something else as well. Lobsters from Canada’s less stringently conservationist fishery are commonly laundered through Maine processing facilities and misleadingly labeled as Maine lobster. The Holdens recognized that at a time when what people eat is increasingly as much an ethical as a gustatory question, being able to fly the trap-to-table flag would appeal to New York’s conscientious eaters. “We know the exact source of all our food,” Luke says. “We can trace it from the bottom of the ocean to the East Village.”

Luke’s, which limits its rolls to knuckles and claws (sweeter and more tender than tails), with a sprinkling of celery salt, was an instant hit on Yelp and recently expanded to the Upper East Side. In April, Luke quit banking to devote himself full-time to the business.

Distant, seemingly unrelated events—environmental, financial, and behavioral—are recasting the highbrow shellfish of yore into inexpensive street food.

Last July, 22 miles off the coast of Maine, a 41-year-old lobsterman named Christopher Young discovered that his trap lines near Matinicus Island had been cut. Suspecting a mainland rival, 68-year-old Vance Bunker, Young pulled alongside Bunker’s boat and boarded it, pirate style. He wrestled with the older man until Bunker emptied a can of pepper spray into his face. Later that day, the two men faced off on a pier on Matinicus. Bunker drew a .22-caliber handgun and shot Young in the neck. Bunker was arrested and charged with elevated aggravated assault, while Young was helicoptered to a hospital for surgery. This past March, after a five-day trial in which Bunker testified that he had been acting in self-defense, he was acquitted.

While shootings are rare, the Maine-lobster fishery has always been fiercely territorial, and in recent years tensions have risen. Now, the same sharp-clawed sense of turf and competition has trickled down from the lobster boats to the lobster-roll purveyors.

Red Hook’s Gorham, who is said to have once brandished a 9-mm. handgun in the midst of heated negotiations with Maine-lobster brokers, rebuffed my requests to accompany him on one of his runs to Maine, citing “trade secrets.” Povich, still smarting from losing out to the restaurant Ditch Plains on the lobster-roll concession at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 this summer, is bringing the fight to them by setting up a pop-up stand nearby. And she’s not above talking down the competition. “Luke pre-proportions all his lobster in Maine and brings it down. I think it looks weird when you actually unwrap Saran Wrap with four ounces of lobster in it. I actually, unlike the guys at Luke’s, am a trained professional chef.” She is milder about Ben Sargent, whom she is fond of and who is using her lobster meat in his rolls, after all. “Ben’s has gotten better, I think, than when he first started … Look, I prefer my style.”

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.

View the Slideshow
The Lobster Roll Boomlet

Luke’s Lobster, Luke Holden
• Country Kitchen bun
• Hellman’s mayonnaise
• Maine lobster
• Sprinkling of celery salt, oregano, and thyme All photographs by Hannah Whitaker

Red Hook Lobster Pound, Susan Povich and Ralph Gorham
• J.J. Nissen bun
• Homemade mayonnaise
• Maine lobster
• Paprika
• Scallions
• Celery

Pearl Oyster Bar, Rebecca Charles
• Pepperidge Farm bun
• Hellman’s mayonnaise
• Maine or Canadian lobster
• Chives

On a Roll