My favorite way to eat a bay scallop is raw, right there on the boat as soon as the drag is pulled out of the water and the scallops are dumped onto the culling board. Pick one up. Take your knife, jimmy open the crenulated shell, and slide off the guts to expose the sweet muscle. A final turn of the knife and voila: a perfect bite ready to be sucked right out of the shell — sweet, cold, utterly delicious.
My second favorite way to eat bay scallops is the way my father cooked them. He added an ample chunk of butter to a cast iron skillet and put the pan on the stove over a high heat. Watching closely he made sure the butter was hot and bubbly but not browning and then he added the scallops. When I do it I try to make sure the scallops are not touching because I like them to be browned on the edges but Dad didn’t care about that. The procedure is simple, but there’s skill involved. Too hot a skillet and the butter burns, not hot enough and the scallops release their juices.
Once in the pan Dad stirred the scallops for a few minutes, keeping the heat pretty high. When he thought they were almost ready he poured in a generous dollop of good sherry. Enough so the scallops were swimming in a butter-sherry bath. He let this simmer a minute or so to burn off some of the alcohol. That’s all. The scallops were done. All that remained was to add a little salt and pepper to taste.
Sometimes Dad poured the scallops onto a bed of rice, but usually he ladled them into shallow soup bowls and we ate them with a spoon, sopping up the extra juices with a crispy French bread.
It’s hard to imagine a better setting for eating a scallop than on an open boat on Menemsha Pond, but Dad’s den ran a close second. There was always a roaring fire. We’d settle in on overstuffed chairs, dogs at our feet, set our bowls on rickety TV tables, and dig in. The meal was so rich, the only thing we could do to settle our stomachs was to follow it with a small bowl of ice cream.
Last week I traveled back home to the tip of Long Island to see my father’s first cousin, who lives in Rome. We met at the restaurant where Dad used to eat once a week. When Patricia saw Peconic Bay scallops on the menu, she immediately ordered them. “You can’t get these in Rome”, she said. “I always loved the way Daddy made them for me. He’d cook them in butter with a lot of sherry.”
“Wait.” I asked her, ” That was your father’s recipe?”
“Of course. Whose did you think it was?”
I remembered her childhood house in Hampton Bays and could picture my father as a young eager boy, scalloping with his beloved uncle, then coming back into the kitchen and being taught the recipe that my father made again and again and eventually passed on to my siblings and me.
When Dad and I ate scallops in his den we were connected by the moment and yet grounded by memories that were separated by a full generation. While I enjoyed a taste I associated exclusively with Dad, he was probably reminded of his favorite uncle. And who knows whom this uncle had in mind when he cooked scallops.
Before scallop season is over this year I hope I have the opportunity to show my two children how to cook scallops the way Dad always did. It’s time they learned a recipe their family members have been enjoying for almost a century. Better yet, maybe they’ll hitch a ride on a friend’s scallop skiff and have the chance to experience the purity of that first raw bite, fresh from the pond.