By Claire Walla
Sure, I knew what scallops were. They were fleshy, white cylinders from the sea—three-dimensional, silver dollar-sized bites of mild-tasting seafood with a high calorie count but a deliciously creamy texture.
However, I didn’t know much beyond that. I certainly didn’t know what it took to catch them.
“I hope you’re not afraid of gunshots,” Daniels said before we set out. We met at his boat in North Haven on a crisp November morning.
Apparently it was also hunting season, which meant that duck hunters would park their boat in the middle of the bay, flank their dinghy with decoys and wait for unknowing ducks to settle in the water before—bang!
“Don’t be alarmed if you hear any shots,” Daniels reiterated.
“Ok,” I said. I didn’t know what to expect that day, but I knew to trust Al.
So, after untethering his little speed boat and downing sips of piping hot coffee—a must on early morning boat rides—we set out for Robins Island, just off Cedar Point.
Daniels, who pointed out the black silhouette of the duck hunters before anything smaller than Robins Island materialized in my line of vision, has an eye for the outdoors. He comes from a long line of commercial fishermen on the East End, stretching back to his father and his grandfather before that.
In fact, he knew it would be a good year for scallops as far back as last fall. Back then, Daniels said, he caught mostly babies—those smaller than two and a quarter inches, and without a growth ring—all of which he had to toss back into the bay. Conditions have been bad for scalloping in recent years, Daniels added, because of the red tide.
His predictions have proved right. “This year, on my first day out, I caught more scallops than I did all of last year!” Daniels told me.
And with the cool morning breeze against the overcast periwinkle sky, I was suddenly eager to drudge up some shells.
Once we got to the bay, I helped Daniels throw four blade drudges into the water. These are wire frames the size with a chain-like netting underneath. The idea is that once the boat starts going, these baskets drag along the bottom of the bay, scraping up whatever lies in their path. We only drove about two to three knots because any faster and the net wouldn’t catch the shells, Daniels said. Any slower, and the weight of the drudge would cause the mollusks to burrow further into the sand.
After about five minutes of drudging, Daniels turned off the motor and we lifted our bounty to the sides of the boat, tipping all of its contents into a plastic bucket.
“Wow! Look at all of that!” I squealed.
“Junk,” Daniels said. And he was right.
Sure enough, during our first round in the bay, we had amassed a few conk shells, a couple clams, several lady crabs, and a good portion of empty scallop shells. “You have to see how much junk there is, that’s the key.”
We kept the clams for Daniels’ daughter, who would cook them into chowder, and we saved the conk shells not because Daniels likes the taste, but because conk crabs eat scallops—it was more a preventative measure. Either we needed to give the drudges a little more rope, Daniels explained, which would allow them to sink a little bit deeper into the sand, or we just happened to drudge through a section of the bay where another boat had already been. Daniels didn’t seem to think this was for any lack of scallops.
With a thick pair of gloves to protect my hands, I sorted through the rest of what we had collected until Daniels pulled up a dark grey shell with a wavy tip: a scallop! I didn’t realize how sheltered my knowledge of sea life had been until Daniels handed me the shellfish. “It’ll bite you,” he said. “But it won’t hurt.”
For the first time, I saw the scallop up close: a cylindrical white muscle holding together two fist-sized half shells that in fact opened and closed in the palm of my hand, nearly spitting, or at least sighing, in the process.
“Why does it do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Daniels replied. “Maybe they’re mad.”
The more I dug through the rest of what the drudges had collected, the more scallops I saw.
In fact, after about an hour and a half, we had pulled up half a bushel full of these shells, which was half of our allotted amount for the day. (Commercial fishermen can legally collect up to five bushels a day.) We continued on, easily acquiescing to this fishing regime: Daniels at the wheel, me sorting through the catch. Quickly, I developed an eye for the little grey shells, and I slowly began to identify which shells were in fact empty. And as Daniels drove on, I tossed shells this way and that, making sure to throw all the “junk” overboard.
Just before we finally collected the last of our bushel, Daniels turned to me and said, “Give me those two scallops in your hand.”
I handed them over and Daniels stuck them with a jack knife, slipping the blade in through the side of the shell and effortlessly prying it in two. With one swift lateral movement, Daniels dragged the blade across the meat, removing all the guts, and threw them into the sea.
“Here’, he said, and handed me the shell. “Try it.”
I had eaten scallops before, usually seared or fried, which gives its creamy mid-section a nice crunchy contrast. I was eager to eat what I had worked so hard to catch; but I never expected to eat them raw. Let alone on a boat.
But, when in Rome… I tipped the marshmellow-shaped muscle into my mouth the same way you’d down an oyster, and I chewed.
Like everything else I had learned that day: Al Daniels was right. And he knew it. He grinned as I ate it and he happily opened another for me.
Though Daniels said he enjoys them broiled and fried, he likes them the way so few people ever get to enjoy.
“They’re best right out of the water!”
Al Daniels Scallop Recipe
1 lb. Bay Scallops
3 Tbsp. Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Butter, Melted
According to Al Daniels, the best way to prepare scallops is to keep it simple.
Line a cookie sheet with a layer of scallops pushed as close together as possible, without overlapping. Pour the olive oil and butter on top, then lightly sprinkle with pepper and a thin layer of bread crumbs. (If you don’t have bread crumbs, crushed saltine crackers will do.) To cook, place the cookie sheet under a broiler for about 10 minutes. “Do not overcook them,” Daniels warns. Before serving, he highly suggests drizzling a bit of honey on top. Though unconventional, Daniels smacks his lips and adds, “there’s nothing like it!”