As someone who has lived in New England her entire life and comes from a family in which knowing how to crack open a lobster is an essential life skill, I thought I’d had lobster in all of its forms. I’ve had it boiled, baked, and bisqued. I’ve eaten it tempura-fried on a stick, rolled into savory doughnuts, and battered into something resembling a corndog. I’ve bought it straight from the dock and picked which would meet its doom right from a tank at a restaurant. I even tried lobster with hot blueberries in a citrus-butter sauce—and let me tell you, it was very good.
But lobster ice cream? That just didn’t seem right.
At least that’s what I thought when I walked into Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard 15 years ago and I saw it right there on the board with all the normal flavors like Coffee Heath Bar and Peppermint Stick. Obviously, I had to try it. I remember thinking that the tiny bite I had on the sample spoon wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But I was not tempted to try any more.
According to the Ben & Bill’s website, lobster ice cream was invented at the store’s first location in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1988 as proof that Ben and Bill really did make all of their ice cream in-house. There’s also a rumor that it came from a dare: someone observed that they had every flavor but lobster, and one of the owners responded, “Come back tomorrow.” Now it’s a staple at all three Ben & Bill’s shops (the third is on Cape Cod). The Bar Harbor location alone goes through more than 100 gallons a year.
So in the interest of good journalism and because I can never turn down an opportunity to try a weird concoction, I got in the car to spend a summer afternoon on Cape Cod revisiting the combination of two foods that I really love but that I am extremely wary of eating at the same time.
Falmouth, Massachusetts, is everything you imagine when you picture Cape Cod in your head. It’s a perfect coastal town, with a main street full of shops selling dresses with seashells on them and restaurants with nautical names. Right now, because of the pandemic, it’s a little bit different. Massachusetts is one of the states with lower coronavirus numbers because it’s strict on mask wearing and social distancing. As of August 1, anyone coming into the state from anywhere but a handful of other places has to quarantine for 14 days or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, on pain of a $500/day fine. On the front door of Ben & Bill’s, there’s a sign announcing that guests are limited to seven at a time and asking people to look inside and count before entering. It’s better, the sign adds, to send one person per group inside to order.
The recipe for lobster ice cream is simple: take two gallons of truly excellent butter-flavored ice cream, mix in 1.5 pounds of cooked lobster meat bought from local fishermen, and leave to freeze until totally set. The result is ice cream that has pretty substantial chunks of red knuckle and claw meat, easily visible when you’re handed your order.
“Do people really eat this?” I asked the girl behind the counter as she scooped my large lobster ice cream in a waffle cone.
“Um… some people do,” she replied. She clearly wasn’t one of them.
“Do they like it?”
“Eh… yeah. Some people.”
I took my cone outside to a little park and snapped as many pictures as I could before the ice cream started to melt in the 90-degree summer sun. And then I took a bite.
Honestly, I didn’t hate it. First, you get the taste of incredibly rich, buttery ice cream. Then comes the lobster. It’s fishy, to be sure, but it’s still lobster. To me, that’s always a good thing (apparently, even in ice cream). I’d assumed lobster ice cream would appeal to people who don’t have a sweet tooth, because of the savory nature of the seafood. But lobster, when it’s fresh, is naturally sweet, and it’s in a base of regular, sugary ice cream. The result is a little bit like frozen lobster bisque—but if you got that bisque hot in a restaurant, you’d be really happy with how much lobster was in it. (Sometimes, as you know if you’ve had it, the lobster part of lobster bisque can be virtually nonexistent.) If you already don’t like ice cream, there’s pretty much no chance you’re going to like lobster ice cream.
Still, now that I’ve had it again, I’ve decided it’s mostly for dads who want to gross out their kids. According to Ben & Bill’s, hundreds of people sample lobster ice cream every day, and it’s popular as a take-home souvenir of a New England vacation. Hard numbers aren’t easy to come by, but Maine’s Down East magazine reported that the company made 410 gallons of it in 2016.
Even though I didn’t hate that ice cream, I definitely didn’t like it enough to finish it. I did, however, go sit by the water that evening and eat a beautifully fresh seafood dinner. It’s New England in the summer, after all. If you didn’t have fish right off the boat, you didn’t summer in New England at all.