Real New Englanders know how to pronounce scallop and warn others to be wary of people who say “skal-lup.” They’re from away and probably don’t know a sea scallop from a bay.
When I wish to be told plainly where the New England mind stands in matters of taste, I turn to an ancient friend of mine, Janet Aaron, who, for the quarter century I have known her, has never equivocated and never doubted. She recalls picking bay scallops on Cape Cod as a girl and says dismissively, “The sea scallop is not even to be mentioned in the same breath as the bay scallop. It is the vulgar version of the scallop.”
She fixes me with a warning eye, “And beware the person who says ‘skal-lup’! They don ‘t know what they’ re talking about. They’re inlanders. It’s ‘skawl-up.’ ”
The scallop, or skawl-up, is the perfect repast for the dour months ahead. Bay scallops in particular achieve perfection during the cold months, when their meat is pumped with the sweetness of stored glycogen. The scallop’s graceful, fluted shell is the emblem of the Apostle St. James the Greater and of pilgrims in general, giving it religious associations, which, while not quite penitential, encourage the casuists among us to serve scallops as proper Lenten fare.
The two reigning scallops in New England waters are the large sea scallop, which is harvested year-round, and the smaller bay scallop — also called the Cape scallop when found in the salt ponds and near the shore of Cape Cod and nearby Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The bay scallop is harvested only from November to March, chiefly to protect it while spawning.
My friend Janet’s parochial preference is echoed by New England food and travel writer Eleanor Early, who declared some 40 years ago: “Sea scallops are not really scallops at all. True scallops are found only in bays. They are the most delicate shellfish in the world, very small and very sweet.” This, of course, is half nonsense.
Sea scallops are scallops and very good to eat, particularly grilled — a treatment that the bay scallop can’t really stand up to. Nonetheless, the sea scallop, robust fellow though he may be, simply does not exercise the grip on the New England palate of the bay scallop.
Unfortunately, the bay scallop harvest has been declining every year, and the fishery could be on its last legs. Bays live only 18 months to two years (as opposed to the sea scallop’s maximum of 30 years), so the failure of one year’s class has devastating consequences. Furthermore, although both sea and bay scallops are sensitive to environmental disturbances, including variations in water salinity and temperature, the bay scallop inhabits shallow water and is susceptible to the added pollution of coastal development Some towns have intensified environmental regulations to protect the bay scallop fishery. Some have even released hatchery-raised scallop seed in their waters. But perhaps the most ambitious approach to the drastic decline of the bay scallop is the Taylor Scallop Farm in Nasketucket Bay off the coast of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Here, bay scallops are raised in special sea nets, ensuring a safe life.
The aquatic “farm” is an eerie sight: a watery metropolis in which peaceful avenues of bright blue buoys stretch over 52 acres. The buoys keep more than 120 long lines afloat, each secured at the other end by an ingenious anchor: salvaged railroad-car wheels, weighing almost half a ton apiece. Suspended from the lines are some 35,000 to 40,000 six-tiered nets, and in them you will find the ever-personable scallop. When a net is hauled out of the sea the privileged visitor may see the inhabitants clacking and chattering excitedly: 150 baby scallops expressing their views. They seem exhilarated and joyful — no doubt they are simply annoyed.
Back on land, after a brisk encounter with a scraper to remove barnacles and other hangers-on, dozens of spiffed-up adult scallops sit in a holding tank. Some chat amiably with their companions, while others seem more interested in the world outside, gazing up with a row of unblinking and attentive eyes. Occasionally, in a surge of ebullience or impatience, a maverick scallop spins off on a rambunctious, cartwheeling carouse.
The Taylor Scallop Company is allowed by law to sell scallops year-round, but the off-season scallops, though certainly good, do not match the cold-water harvest. Taylor Bays, as these scallops are known, are sold live in their shell and are intended to be eaten whole. They are sold in a number of fish markets and are well worth seeking out.
In cooking bay scallops, as in everything, Janet Aaron demands simplicity, directness, no frills. “Bay scallops stand on their own,” she announces. “Pat them dry. Fry them lightly in butter. A hot pan, but don’t brown them. A couple of minutes at most. Just until they are opaque. Serve them with lemon. Salt and pepper. That’s it.”
She pauses sternly. “Well,” she relents, “you may have a glass of dry white wine with them.”
Some people do more with their scallops. For example, scallops are excellent smoked. The delicacy of the flesh might make such treatment seem too brutal — and in the wrong hands it is — but there is at least one source of very good smoked scallops: Ducktrap River Fish Farm of Maine. This company cold-smokes scallops in oak and apple wood. They are wonderful in salads and may be kept two weeks in the refrigerator.
Usually when we think of scallops, most of us are really thinking of the sweet plug of ivory-colored meat that is, in fact, only the scallop’s powerful abductor muscle. With the exception of Taylor Bays, most bay scallops are sold shucked. All sea scallops are. What has happened to the rest of it? It has simply been thrown out, a “sacrilege,” according to the great food writer Waverly Root. Be that as it may, this is the New England custom, and when I suggest to my advisor that the whole animal should be consumed Janet shakes her head and barks, “Well , I never heard of such a thing!” I persist in this heresy, having myself enjoyed scallops whole, both cooked and raw. Janet peers at me with troubled eyes and grumbles, “I don’t know if I can get used to this idea. I don’t think I like it.”
Now that you know how to pronounce scallop, maybe you’d like to try cooking with the whole shellfish. If so, here are a few recipes that use all the edible parts.