Lobster, the emperor of crustaceans, is on a roll — a roll of near-record-high prices.
A pound of picked lobster meat, the sweet, plump, exquisite ambrosia we like to cradle in a buttery split bun, requires more labor and as many as six lobsters to produce — and it sold for as much as $45 wholesale this spring compared with $17 three years ago.
Celebrated Red’s Eats, close to the source in postcard-perfect Wiscasset, Maine, bills itself as the “World’s Best Lobster Shack.” Red’s is charging about $22.50 a roll, after the price soared to $26.50 in May, the highest Deborah Gagnon has seen in four decades of her family operating the business, due to “the extremely cold weather we had. People were wearing winter jackets in May!”
Purveyors — pardon the expression — feel the pinch. “The bane of my existence,” sighs Doug Povich, a recovering lawyer, who operates two Red Hook Lobster Pound DC trucks and a kiosk — a glorified hot dog cart. He made an infographic to help explain to his customers why his rolls cost almost $17.
What caused current high prices? Decreased supply after a harsh winter of windy days when lobstermen couldn’t brave the sea. Increased national and international demand for North American lobster. Processing plants not keeping up with that demand.
With apologies to David Foster Wallace, and without footnotes, reconsider the lobster.
Once sustenance for the poor and prisoners, lobsters constituted early American lunch meat.
“Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats,” Wallace wrote in his 2004 Gourmet essay.
Over time, due to a change in preparation (cooked live instead of dead) and its embrace by Manhattan swells such as Diamond Jim Brady at raw bars, lobster became a special-occasion present on a plate, wrapped in its own Christmas-red shell. Lobster was an event, to be savored slowly, a gastronomic spectator sport that required well-dressed adults to don unbecoming plastic bibs in public and pay handsomely for the privilege.
Eventually, food obsessives demanded that the gustatory treats be stripped of pomp and made readily available at any time, served from food trucks, at night markets, on white counters accompanied with craft brews.
With technological advances, better and faster shipping, it was possible to eat fresh lobster miles from Maine. Lobster rolls, once a specific sense memory to New England summers, became a luxury fast-food item available whenever and wherever its fans were hungry and paying.
“Lobster rolls became the new cupcake,” says Doug’s cousin Susan Povich, also a recovering lawyer, who launched Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn in 2009.
Susan (daughter of Maury, granddaughter of Washington Post sportswriter legend and Bar Harbor-born Shirley) says wholesale picked lobster prices are up 120 percent since her business began. Back then, “there wasn’t a single lobster roll in New York under $29,” she says. Rolls were the provenance of a few Manhattan fine-dining restaurants — upmarket down-market food — where customers didn’t flinch at filet prices for a treat historically served in baskets lined with red-and-white checked paper and often consumed in minutes.
She launched Red Hook the same year that Luke Holden started Luke’s Lobster, now with 22 locations in the United States and two food trucks. Susan Povich’s rolls sell for $20 at multiple locations and private events, as much as she figures her customers will pay. When she began, they were $13.
“Which means I’m making a lot less money,” Susan says. She wouldn’t reveal her wholesale prices, but Doug pays $30 a pound. In New York, Red Hook offers plenty of other items: chowder, clam strips, oysters, crab dip.
“But if you put a lobster roll on the menu,” she says, “it’s the Number One seller.” She sells lobster rolls four ways — Maine (mayo), Connecticut (butter), Tuscan (basil vinaigrette) and BLT (gilding the lobster with bacon).
The Povich cousins will tell you that we’ve been misguided — so misguided — about lobster meat.
“It’s a misconception that the tail’s the best part,” Doug says. “Tails are less expensive than the claw and knuckle, which are sweeter and more tender than the tail. We pay so much more for claws and knuckles. ”
Lobster meat prices spiked so high this spring that several times Sam Mink, a third-generation Philadelphia seafood restaurant owner, removed rolls from his Oyster House menu. Customers moaned in disappointment.
“I’ve never seen prices this high, as high as $44 for a pound of picked meat,” he says. “I would have had to charge $35.” Despite the restaurant’s name honoring the mighty bivalve and its interior decorated with vintage porcelain oyster plates, lobster rolls remain Mink’s top seller.
But of all the reasons for the current prices, the leading culprit is the Great Lobster Glut of 2012.
Remember 2012? What a sweet, delicious, glorious year for consumers! Lobster sold for $2 a pound wholesale. They were giving the stuff away.
But what a horrible, terrible, terrifying year it was for the industry. “It’s important to remember our lobstermen and women need — and deserve! — decent pay for their hard work,” cautions Gagnon, whose nephew is a lobsterman. Lobster folks dealt with the glut by expanding sales and creating national and international markets. Lobster rolls became available at West Coast fish houses. In Europe, lobster became popular at Christmas. In Asia, lobster became a treat for Chinese New Year, for Valentine’s Day, for basically everything.
Says Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, “There was never a dull moment.”
Lobster meat arrived on the menu at Panera Bread and other fast-casual chains. Lobster mac and cheese became a thing. So did the McLobster at some McDonald’s in Canada and New England.
Lobster’s popularity skyrocketed. The amount of lobsters did not: about 130 million pounds annually from Maine, which supplies 80 percent of all U.S. lobster, and an additional 170 million pounds from Canada. American restaurateurs found themselves competing for lobster meat with a robust and ravenous international market. They also found that once consumers develop a taste for lobster, they rarely turn back.
But with the current prices, McDonald’s in Canada benched McLobster from the menu.
This month, Kyle Bailey opened the Salt Line, across from Washington’s Nationals Park on the Anacostia River, selling up to 215 lobster rolls daily for $25 with fries.
“We can’t afford picked meat,” Bailey says. “So we pick the meat ourselves. And picking is insanely labor-intensive.”
He purchases 150 whole lobsters daily: “It takes almost all day, one or two people, working 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.” Bailey is often one of those people picking. He also makes his own buns. Nothing goes to waste. He sells some leftover tails at the raw bar, and uses the shells for stock.
John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability for seafood distributor ProFish, says wholesale prices are not as high as last year. “The pickers are not picking as rapidly, but supply should increase during the summer,” as the availability of live lobsters increases. By fall, this could all crash again: Fewer lobsters, equal demand.
Susan Povich, who built a small crustacean empire on lobster rolls, predicts a shakeout in the market. Lobster rolls can’t be happy meals on every restaurant menu. The supply won’t allow it.
“But the demand is there,” she says, and it’s not going anywhere. “I believe the prices are never going down.”
She believes in lobster. She loves lobster. But, now, so do so many other people around the world.
Scale, print and rate the recipe in our Recipe Finder:
4 to 8 servings (makes a generous 2 cups)
Serve with crusty French bread, soft brioche or neutral-tasting cracker, like a water cracker or plain Melba toast.
MAKE AHEAD: The pâté needs to be refrigerated for 2 or 3 hours before serving, and up to 3 days.
Adapted from a recipe in the September-October 1984 issue of Yankee magazine.
½ cup shelled unsalted raw pistachio nuts
4 tablespoons lobster butter (may substitute softened unsalted high-fat butter; see NOTE and headnote)
4 ounces flounder fillet or other tender, sweet white fish, cut into 1-inch chunks
1½ cups cooked lobster meat, including some body meat and fat, if possible, and any coral (from two 1-pound soft-shell lobsters or use frozen/defrosted)
2 teaspoons cognac or brandy
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salmon roe, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
Spread the nuts in a shallow pan; toast them in the oven (middle rack) for 10 minutes, or just until fragrant. Coarsely chop the still-warm toasted pistachios.
Combine the lobster butter and fish in a saute pan over low heat; cook for about 3 minutes or until the fish turns opaque.
Transfer the fish and the butter to a food processor; add 1 cup of the lobster meat and any coral, if that’s available. Pulse, and then puree until smooth. Add the cognac or brandy, salt and nutmeg; puree until well incorporated. Remove the blade from the food processor bowl, scraping off as much of the pâté mixture as possible.
Coarsely chop the remaining ½ cup of lobster meat and add to the mixture, along with the chopped toasted pistachios. Stir gently to incorporate. Taste and add more salt, as needed.
Transfer to a crock or serving container with a tight-fitting lid. Seal and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Serve garnished with salmon roe, if desired.
NOTE: To make the lobster butter, break up the spent shells of a 1-pound cooked lobster into small pieces. Place them in a deep saucepan along with 4 ounces (8 tablespoons) of good-quality, high-fat, unsalted butter over low heat, stirring to incorporate, until the butter has melted. After a few minutes, turn off the heat and let steep for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Transfer the shells and melted butter to a fine-mesh strainer, using your clean hands to extract as much of the butter as possible from the shells. Discard them. The yield should be at least 4 tablespoons, all of which you will need for this recipe; it depends on how assiduous you are at extracting all the butter. Store any leftover butter in a small container and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 2 weeks). Use the leftover lobster butter in a hollandaise sauce or as a cooking fat for your favorite seafood.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8): 130 calories, 8 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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