October 1, 2013
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Standing at the edge of water of the harbor, the sand and shell hash dimple my feet. New England has granted me a bow of warm weather (in the 70’s!) this week. I squint in the morning sun reflected off the water. In the water bob the neoprened heads of snorkelers, those who have come for the scallops on this first day of the season. The snorkelers drag a floating fish basket with a diving flag. Each snorkeler has a hand net. There are two small boats being paddled; the paddlers stop, look in the water and then dip their long-handled nets. Two scallopers wade while pushing a scallop-box in front of them. The scallop-boxes are rectangles of wood with a clear plexiglass bases and two erect slats holding up a sheet. The scallopers have their heads under the sheet looking downward, like the box is their own private theater with a movable stage.
A lone loon, who only seems interested in preening, is at the bullseye of the harbor, with the scallopers as points of drunkenly throw darts .
I am a dart not yet on the board. I am standing in my wetsuit, which only accentuates my seductively slender physique. It also pushes my testicles against and almost into my body more than I would like. I do not have the loon’s natural insulation.
I glide into the water, net in hand. The water creeps into my suit. I pee in it but I don’t get any warmer. The mask pushes against my face and I can hear my breath, like a sandpapery whisper, escape through my snorkel.
A brown and knobby-ugly spider crab tip-toes on spindle-legs on the sandy bottom. He is diminutive and less attractive than his famous Alaskan cousin, the king crab. Stacked orgies of the sexually transformative slipper shells sit among the dead-man’s fingers and green and brown algas. I push on the bottom with my feet, penetrating into the sulfur-rich soft layers. I reach the edge of an eelgrass patch. Eelgrass is a long, thin-bladed grass that waves in turbulence or falls over in calm waters if weighted by sediment. In this soft-green forest I find my quarry, bay scallops (Argopecten radians). They come in many colors of purples and oranges and whites and browns. They sit on top of the eelgrass canopy like bright Christmas ornaments on a tree.
I lower my net to scoop up a purple scallop. He escapes by swimming. It’s my first live view of a scallop swimming. It is much different than the razor clam I saw swimming two months ago. The swimming is awkward and the scallop looks like he’s on stilts in the water trying to walk. Here’s what it looks like. He stops swimming and sinks back into the eelgrass canopy. I scoop him up. He’s too small. I have a hard time judging size with my eyes because everything looks bigger underwater. So I use my bare feet to determine the size of the scallop and when I find one big enough, use my monkey toes to pick it up. That’s how a boy from Arkansas does it.
I grab a large scallop with my foot. I hold him just underwater; I want to get a better look at him. He opens the valves of his shell. He wants to get a better look at me. On the edge of his mantle skirt are dozens of iridescent blue dots, these are eyes. This scallop can not only swim, but he can also see! Scallops have the most advanced vision of all the bivalves (didn’t you know that bivalves have eyes? Never heard the phrase “blind as a bivalve” have you? No, you haven’t), but with little resolution. They can definitely detect light and shades of gray, but probably only the outlines of potential predators, including the notorious Barefoot Arkansan.
My friend Mo, whose crispy-white whiskers stick out of his wetsuit hood and reminds me of an anorexic walrus, says there aren’t many scallops around this year. And he’s right, after three hours, we only catch 30 hand-sized scallops. Not even enough to fill the bottom of the basket. He lifts the basket from the water and the scallops chatter like a pack of novelty teeth. They are trying to swim away.
Mo and I take our meager harvest back to his house. We sit in the sun of his carport and he he teaches me how to shuck. He places a shucking knife in between the shell valves, cuts away the mantle and the viscera and then cuts the large adductor muscle. It is this muscle that allows scallops to swim. It is also what allows them to be delicious; it’s the only part that we eat. When you eat scallops, you are eating their breaststroke.
I try one raw. It’s sweet and salty.
Mo weighs our harvest. 7.25 ounces. Not even half a pound of meat after three hours of work. I pan-sear four scallops in a pan and he freezes the rest for his family. We sit in the sun on his carport and find that those three hours of work taste sweet.
How to make pan-seared scallops
Heat your pan under medium high heat. Pat dry your scallops (if you bought them from the store you will want to rinse them and then pat them dry). Coat the pan with salted butter (if you use margarine you might as well use dog turds). For bay scallops, cook on one side for 1 minute, quickly turn them over and cook them for another minute. DO NOT move them around in the pan! It only takes 2 minutes so stop being so fidgety and impatient. For the larger sea scallops, 2-2.5 minutes on one side and 1 minute on the other. If you overcook them they will be rubbery and I will not come to your house for dinner ever again.