When I tell people that I’m a part-time resident of Maine, I often get an enthusiastic, “Wow, you must get sick of lobster.”
And, yes, it’s true. I do get sick of lobster. But not from eating too much. I get sick of lobster cultists, that roving band of hard-shelled Hare Krishnas who loudly express devotion to the crustacean as they wander the Maine coast in search of shrines they call “pounds.” They then don creepy uniforms consisting of a flimsy plastic bib, wield specialized and arcane tools, and engage in post-prandial ceremonies centered around individually wrapped toilettes. But their ritual is chiefly practiced in the eating: They take one bite of lobster, and, butter running down their chins, their eyes flutter upward as they issue groaning incantations about its sanctity atop the food chain.
Now, I actually have nothing against lobster. It’s great if you like sitting outside swatting mosquitoes as your tablemates launch geysers of unusual-smelling fluid at you while they prospect for something called “knuckle meat.” (And let’s not get started on lobster rolls—I’ll admit that lobster meat tastes pretty okay when it’s hot out of a steamer, but its flavor is reduced by at least 80-percent when refrigerated and so you might as well just have a hot dog bun, mayonnaise, and some neutral bioengineered protein.)
Yet, none of these are the lobster cultists’s greatest sin. The central tragedy of their endless rovings is the long and pernicious shadow they cast over the region’s true and absolute delicacy. I am talking, of course, about big, flavorful sea scallops, which are the north’s bona fide maritime royalty.
Scallops came somewhat late to the American seafood table, well after lobster, oysters and clams. Not until the 1890s did a mania for scallops take root, which prompted large fleets to cast off and drag for the mollusks off Long Island, Connecticut, Cape Cod, Maine, and elsewhere. “Not so well known, perhaps, as the juicy clam or the royal oyster,” the Boston Globe reported in 1895, the scallop “has none of the India rubber consistency occasionally met with in the chowder, nor must it be eaten in all its slippery nudity, so disagreeable to some palates.” One newcomer to scallops raved that they were “simply little lumps of deliciously flavored meat,” with the added bonus that “they have no organs.” All true.
I, too, was late to scallops, having been recruited early into the lobster cult during family trips to New England. Then, in my thirties, I moved for several years to Eastport, Maine, which is the easternmost city in the United States and sits on a briny cul-de-sac off the Bay of Fundy. This, I learned, was scallop territory, and so my cult deprogramming began.
Fundy scallops are massive; some are the size of filet mignons. Often, two or three scallops per person are enough for dinner. I found that cooking them did not take a whole lot of skill or finesse—just a cast iron skillet heated until oil would smoke, then a searing for maybe 30 second or a minute each side, flipping with tongs. Season. Eat. Then let oracular incantations about the scallop’s superiority tumble out of your mouth.
A well-cooked scallop has it all—a good sear offers a touch of caramelized complexity as well as a pleasing bit of resistance that easily gives way to an interior texture that’s silky to the point of evanescence. The best sea scallops taste like the ocean, briny and ineffably aquatic. In contrast, boiled lobster—so often overcooked—tastes angry to me, an impression not in the least reduced by having on my plate a red, decapitated head staring at me from dead eyes perched atop little stalks.
In Eastport, December first was opening day for scallop season, and in the early winter dusk I’d watch for the running lights of scallop boats returning to the harbor. That was my cue to grab a five-gallon plastic pail and some twenty dollar bills and wander down to the pier, where I’d intercept giddy scallopers ambling toward cash-laden wholesalers in their bright, idling trucks.
A quick negotiation, $60 or $80 exchanged, and I would have a year’s worth of scallops. The pail was burdensome on my walk home, but I could lighten the load by eating them raw, one after the other, like sea candy. Back in my kitchen, I’d seal up several at a time in snack-sized Ziploc bags, and stack them like cordwood in the freezer to get me through the year. (Scallops freeze remarkably well, and offer no hint of freezer burn even when eaten the following November when making room for a fresh crop.)
I suspect the national enthusiasm deficit for scallops stems in large part from the inferior scallops usually available. Bay scallops are more common, and are small and prone to overcooking, resulting in tough, chewy nuggets. (Why these are not called “popcorn scallops” mystifies me.)
When sea scallops can be found, they are often processed. Called “wet scallops,” they’re soaked in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate en route to market, which acts as a preservative and also plumps them up with added water, like a seafood Botox. This means you pay extra for something normally free from a faucet, and for something that has lost its briny nobility. These slowly exude a chalky liquid as they sit forlornly in the fish case at the grocery story. My advice is to not buy scallops marinating in melancholy pools of milky sadness. Ask for “dry scallops.”
Last month I made a pilgrimage to Digby, Nova Scotia, across the Bay of Fundy from Eastport. It’s one of the global centers of scallop culture—you see “Digby scallops” on menus nationwide, as if they were a brand. The phrase “famous Digby scallops” returns north of 12,000 Google hits. Digby is to scallops what Chicago is to deep dish pizza, New York is to bagels, and New Orleans is to Sazeracs.
Here, in full views of a vast fleet of big-bottomed scallop boats tied up along a breakwater, I was reminded of another reason scallops have not gained their own cult: they’re often prepared as if in the era when the first Trudeau was still prime minister.
Digby has a friendly tourist vibe, and virtually every restaurant serves scallops. Yet all have been subject to unfathomable indignities—they are chopped, slathered, and chowderized beyond recognition. They are made into “scallop burgers,” or overcooked and tossed in salads with berries, pecans, and goat cheese. The word “Newburg” is often involved. You can also get them fried. Very, very fried.
The Digby restaurant where I ate was essentially an annex to a gift shop, in which one could buy a “beachcombers kit” containing a net, some shells and other flotsam. (One can evidently now outsource one’s beachcombing, which strikes me as badly missing the point.) I opted against a dish consisting of five scallops enrobed in a cheese sauce, and instead ordered the seafood chowder, which seemed the simplest thing on the menu. It presumably had scallops, but it was hard to distinguish them from the boiled potatoes in either color, texture, or taste.
In Digby, I felt as if I had rediscovered the 1970s. Elsewhere in my travels around the Bay of Fundy I found the ‘80s and ‘90s. In Annapolis Royal, I had “orange-chili scallops” served with “a European decadent sauce,” which I found neither European nor decadent. In Parrsboro, I spent $12 on an appetizer of four medium-sized scallops widely distributed on a long, rectangular plate, presided over by a strip of fatty, over-smoked bacon and ornamented with long, Jackson Pollock-y orange and black squiggles (roasted red pepper puree and maple-balsamic reduction, apparently). I could scarcely taste the scallops—they may as well have been little pork medallions.
Abundance often yields disrespect. In a region where delicious, reasonably priced scallops are widely available, they are neither revered nor exalted, but viewed as blank canvases upon which to inflict misguided and outdated culinary notions.
Fortunately, I then made a detour to Halifax. Here, I headed to Bar Kismet, which opened last year in a raggedy, blue-collar North End neighborhood that will never appear on laminated souvenir placemats. Inside it was bustling with a young and well-coiffed clientele; each time the front door opened the late-setting golden sun reflected off the glass door as if someone had turned on a stage light, gilding those along the bar and making them attractive to the point of absurdity.
I was in luck. Chef Annie Brace-Lavoie had just added a new scallop dish to the menu that day. Yet when it arrived my heart sank—it looked like scallops had been diced to the size of BBs and made into some sort of ocean porridge. Then my fork struck gold: underneath what turned out to be perfectly diced white turnips and lemongrass were thin medallions of amazingly fresh raw scallops, left unmolested in all their glory. They tasted like a cold, briny sea, with a long, peppery finish to complement the saltiness.
The one thing the lobster cult gets right is its embrace of simplicity—lobster, butter, lemon, beer, picnic table. It’s clear that scallops now need a similar cult to lead it away from overcooking and over preparation, and into the paradise of plainness. Raw. Seared. Left alone. If enough chefs treated the noble scallop with proper reverence, I’m pretty sure a significant scallop cult would naturally form.
Follow me. I am willing to lead you out of the wilderness. No bib required.