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OBITUARIES : Allen Gagnon, 1936 - 2008

They come to Red's for wicked lobster roll

June 22, 2008|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Who makes the best lobster roll in Maine? It's an ongoing debate, but Allen Gagnon had more than his share of advocates. Red's Eats, his modest seafood shack hard by U.S. 1 in Wiscasset, is mobbed by road-food fanatics all summer, with lines of tourists and locals alike snaking along the intersection of Main and Water streets.

Gagnon, 71, died June 13 of respiratory failure at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, but Red's Eats will stay open and the debate will rage on.

Stripped to its essentials, a lobster roll is a toasted hot dog bun filled with fresh lobster meat. Roadside stands up and down the coast of Maine hawk the summertime staple. Most brush the buns with melted butter, some dress the shellfish with mayonnaise or lemon juice and others add shredded lettuce, pickles or other garnishes.

Many considered Gagnon's version the quintessential lobster roll. It's a simple bun split and toasted, stuffed with an abundance of hand-shredded lobster meat and served with warm butter and mayonnaise on the side.

A former caterer, Gagnon bought Red's Eats in 1977 and decided to put a lobster roll on the menu after being disappointed by a competitor's sandwich.

"There was celery on it and there was mayonnaise, and there was frozen lobster, and it was terrible," he told CBS News in 2003. "And I said, 'I'm going to make a lobster roll.' "

Variously called an "idiosyncratic kiosk," by the late New York Times epicure R.W. Apple, and a "glorified pushcart," by House Beautiful, Red's Eats has become a summertime institution in Maine.

Long lines form for the walk-up window under the red-and-white striped awning regardless of the time of day or the weather, and customers sit at outdoor tables as traffic whizzes by on two-lane Highway 1 where it crosses the Sheepscot River.

Allen William Gagnon was born Sept. 4, 1936, in Jackman, Maine, one of nine children. He had operated a trailer park and worked at the Bath Iron Works shipyard before becoming a caterer and running a pizzeria.

Then he took over Red's Eats, which had been in business since 1938.

Customers came to talk to Gagnon as much as to sample his lobster roll.

"My dad was the kind of guy who'd talk to anyone," his daughter Deborah Cronk told the local Times Record newspaper last week. "He was interested in people, so while they would wait in line he'd ask them questions, start a conversation.

"And it didn't matter who the person was. Whether it was Paul Newman or a clammer, all the same to him."

Besides Cronk, Gagnon's survivors include another daughter, Cynthia Collamore; two sons, David and Joseph, all of Wiscasset; five grandchildren; one great-grandson; six sisters; and two brothers.

Cronk will continue to operate Red's Eats. You can still get a lobster roll, $16.50 plus tax.

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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