World's Best Lobster Shack
Virginia Wright &
Debbie Gagnon Cronk
Downeast, 74pp, $14.95
Well, The New York Times certainly got the scoop on me this time. It's not very often that a little town in Maine makes the big news but there it was, Abbie Goodnough's not-so-happy summer-time article on the traffic jams created in Wiscasset, Maine--apparently by a humble little lobster shack which has been doing business by the bridge on Maine Street (US Rt 1) for decades.
My family and I have driven by Red's Eats a hundred times on our jaunts down east. Last week we were on the road home from our annual downeast vacation. Approaching Wiscasset the traffic abruptly stalled. It was stop and go for twenty-three minutes (we timed it for posterity) until we emerged from the snarl a mile or south out of town. Goodnough's piece flashed into my mind. We had plenty of time to observe the line at Red's. It really did wind around the building and out of sight but that didn't seem to affect the traffic, unless every car was slowing down to gawk. The article, I also remembered, mentioned a new book about Red's Eats which I decided would be September's book to review.
Red's Eats is a snappy little morsel of a book with lots of pictures of lobster rolls and people standing in line and quoted accolades from stars and dubiously famous politicians as well as your next door neighbor, who all, without exception, think Red's is the best lobster roll they've ever eaten. The predominant color of the book, inside and out is, appropriately, red. End pages are printed with a red lobster motif. The pages are stuffed with photos of the shack, the people and the product. Especially appealing are the photos of the famous lobster roll. (Don't read this book hungry.)
Virginia Wright and Debbie Gagnon Cronk, daughter of Red--the owner of the family-run business from 1957 until 2008, tell the story. "The Little Trailer" as it was first called, was wheeled to its spot on the side of Route 1 in 1938 by Leland and Mabel Bryant. They sold sandwiches and soft drinks. The Bryant daughters took over the business, renaming it first "Phyl and Pat's," then, "Two Sisters." These two ladies began selling lobster and crab rolls. The "Two Sisters" food wagon was sold to Stan and Velma Dodge who owned other businesses on the other side of Main Street.
In 1950, the Dodges sold the business to a 19 year old budding entrepreneur who already owned one hot dog stand. Alan Pease, the future chief justice of the Maine District Court, ran Al's Eats seven nights a week (until 2 A.M. on Saturdays), all by himself. His similar Boothbay Harbor business was not as successful as the Wiscasset version so, in 1954, the Boothbay building was jacked up and moved to "Red's" present location. In his last year in law school, Pease sold the business which was subsequently sold several more times (once to "Red," Harold Delano a Boothbay Harbor native. He had ginger colored hair.)
In 1957, Al Gagnon purchased the little riverside take-out stand. He did not have red hair but new the value of a catchy name. He also knew the way to a customer's heart. "Don't measure the lobster, pile it high," he would say. When he died in 2008, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed him "the lobster roll king." That accolade was echoed around the world by customers and food writers alike.
Among the many charms of the book are the snapshots scattered on every page of Red and Red's family running the place, the lines of customers from all over the world; almost every one of which are refreshingly guileless candids. The very professional food shots will make you salivate. There are recipes, a short history of Wiscasset, the lifecycle of the lobster, a list of celebs seen in line at Red's, and a page of the best sources for the food Red's uses in their delectable meals. Red's Eats has captured the charm of the unassuming little eatery with the global fan club to a tee. It's a Maine story.