MASHPEE, Mass. (AP) – Leaning back in his bar stool, the retired postmaster shook his head and jabbed a fork toward the pound of lobster and mayonnaise stuck between bread.

Deprived of lobster rolls in Arizona, James Maguire III had returned to his native Massachusetts and consumed seven in almost as many days. He found the biggest and best at The Raw Bar in Mashpee.

“There’s more lobster in this one than all the rest combined,” he said, giddy with delight.

New Englanders speak of lobster rolls with a reverence usually reserved for religion. Devoted sects squabble over the delicacy’s origins, they quarrel over recipe orthodoxy and they flock to beloved seafood shacks like pilgrims to a shrine.

A winding summertime journey from Connecticut to Maine spanned 250 miles, seven lobster rolls and several thousand calories. The search didn’t reveal the one, undisputed lobster roll, but it uncovered some good ones.

Here’s the truth: A proper New England lobster roll includes meat and bread. Everything else is negotiable.

Disputes over the lobster roll outnumber the ingredients in one. Are they properly served drenched in butter or smeared with mayonnaise? Hellman’s or horseradish? Lettuce or celery? And why lobster, anyway?

“There is that weird irony that lobster is such an expensive ingredient and it’s being served in such a pedestrian way,” said Rebecca Charles, a Manhattan chef who first encountered lobster rolls while vacationing in Maine as a child.

Charles considers herself a fundamentalist. To her, a true lobster roll is cased in a toasted, Pepperidge Farm hotdog bun. It contains cold lobster chunks coated with Hellman’s mayonnaise. She mixes in minced celery, salt and pepper, then adds squeezed lemon juice. Warm bread contrasts with cold meat.

In Connecticut and New York, lobster rolls are drenched in hot drawn butter and little else.

“You occasionally find chefs that try to stick things in there that don’t belong, like paprika, lemon grass and God knows what else,” Charles said.

With so many ways to serve lobster, why on a roll? Cookbooks claim lobster was once so plentiful that it became cheap fare for the working class, even servants. Lobster rolls could be an attempt to dress up leftovers or break monotony.

But food historian Sandy Oliver, who lives in Islesboro, Maine, dismisses that story as popular myth. Lobster meat has always been expensive, except for brief periods, she said. Victorian diners, however, considered it uncouth to rip lobsters limb-for-limb on white table linens. As a result, 19th century cooks mixed cold meats like lobster into salads, a clean, convenient solution for neat freaks. A 1902 cookbook lists a recipe for what may be an early lobster roll made with French bread and secured with a bow. “It’s sort of a holdover from our more refined and genteel past,” Oliver said.

Lobster rolls are simple, but mistakes are easy. Most shacks have a signature touch, a break with the supposed orthodoxy.

Waitress Diana Fitzgerald prepared Maguire’s massive lobster roll at The Raw Bar in Mashpee. Clearly, she thinks more means better. Grasping an ice cream scooper, she reached into a vat of lobster and mayonnaise and dolloped big scoops onto white rolls.

In Maine, an evening breeze spread fried food vapors from The Clam Shack, a cramped box over the Kennebunk River. A young cashier wrote down orders, then clipped them to a clothesline behind her.

The shack’s offerings straddle two lobster roll worlds: lobster meat gently swabbed in mayonnaise or lobster doused with warm, drawn butter. Both options come on oversized white dinner rolls from a local bakery and include lemon wedges.

Patrons prefer mayonnaise to butter by about five-to-one, owner Steve Kingston said.

On a summer day, Kingston said his restaurant boils 500 pounds of lobster in saltwater drawn from a 60-foot pipe extending beneath the bridge. Two crews pick through enough lobster claws, knuckles and tails twice daily to fill several hundred rolls.

Finding a seat here means sitting on a handful of rickety benches or propping upon the wooden bridge. Two cars nearly crash as they compete for one of seven parking spots.

Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, a backroads restaurant in Kittery Point, Maine, offers more room to spread out. The restaurant is essentially a dock on the creek, and patrons bring picnic side dishes and eat shaded by pine trees.

Lobster rolls here come on cold, circular buns, not hotdog rolls. Co-owner Zach Spinney said his grandmother’s recipe substitute’s Miracle Whip for mayonnaise, creating a mix that sits lighter in the stomach.

“Every once in a while you get someone who complains about it,” he said. “We pretty much keep it as straightforward as possible. It’s a lobster roll. People want to taste the lobster.”

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