As soon as the family scallop season opens in Chilmark on October 1, my husband digs in the garage for his wooden culling board and the scallop drags I gave him one year for Christmas. He hoses off a pair of wire baskets, loads everything into his truck, and we head for Menemsha harbor where he keeps his boat. We’re going scalloping.
Not much is grander than steaming up Menemsha Pond on a shiny autumn morning cradling a hot cup of coffee from the gas dock. The sun dances off the water, and the weather is often still warm enough for just a tee-shirt.
Except for the fishermen competing in the annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, most of the summer boats and crowds are gone, and there’s a welcome sense of space. We move slowly up the pond until Whit chooses where he wants to set the scallop drags.
Idling the boat, he throws first one and then the other drag into the shallow water. Every year he forgets how heavy even the empty ones are.
We motor slowly, letting the drags run gently along the bottom. Soon they are full. Together we manage to pull up each drag and dump the contents onto the culling board. There are a few crabs, empty oyster shells, and some seaweed, but the bulk of the take is delectable bay scallops.
My favorite way to eat a scallop is raw on the boat. Before we begin the job of culling we stop and indulge in a few tender bites. Holding a scallop by its side firmly but gently, I jimmy open the crenulated shell with a scallop knife and slide the guts off to expose the sweet muscle. I scrape against the shell with a quick turn of the knife, and a perfect bite is ready to be sucked out of the shell, sweet, cold, and 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 flame. Watching closely to make sure the butter was hot and bubbly, but not browning, he added the scallops. When I do it, I try to make sure no scallops are touching. I like them 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 the scallops are in the pan, Dad stirred them 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.
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 slice of warm French bread.
It’s hard to imagine a better setting for eating a scallop than 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.
Before scallop season is over this year, I hope to have the opportunity to show my two children how to cook scallops the way Dad did. Recently I learned that Dad’s beloved uncle taught him this recipe. It’s funny to think that when Dad and I ate scallops together we were connected in that moment, but what grounded our memories was separated by at least a generation. Will knowing this way of cooking scallops has been passed down by family members for at least a century add to my children’s pleasure — or make it all too rich with meaning?
If so, we can go back to basics. Nothing beats the purity of that first raw bite — a taste the human family has enjoyed with unbridled pleasure generation after generation.