Shellfish Motives

Our love for seafood is inversely proportional to our coast size

illustration by brad fitzpatrick

Some say New Hampshire has the shortest coastline of any state in the US (I’m looking at you, Wikipedia). I say what we lack in length, we make up for in dangerous currents. I mean heart. And seafood.

My father’s first word was “frycram.” Forget Mama and Dada, he was Baby Fried Clams. To this day, he has Clam Blindness — the presence of clams blots out anything else going on around him. It’s a common local affliction. Who among your neighbors would still be dipping their steamers as the world burned around them? You’d be surprised. My father traded the speedboat for a fresh peck of clams. He needs help. (They were good clams, though.)

One of my grandmother’s last delights, after she could no longer do puzzles or follow the Red Sox, was taking a ride up to Johnson’s for fried scallops. (“Them ah good!”) Even at 84 years and 89 pounds, she could still put those scallops away, slowly, methodically, inexorably. Back home, you better believe she wasn’t exiting that car until every scallop-to-go had been consumed, no matter how loudly you cleared your throat, standing in our driveway, in the rain, with her wheelchair at the ready. I get my shrimp allergy from her. Poor us.

But I’ve never shied away from baked-stuffed catch-of-the-day or a boat of fried mollusks. I’ve hunted eels in the mud with my bare toes. Grampa used to take us oystering off Adams Point in Great Bay — rise in the dark to hit the tide right, return triumphant with a bushel of oysters for every licensed adult and spend the afternoon shucking. Except me, too little for knives. I just ate.

A man in Armagh, Northern Ireland, told me he refused to drink Guinness except in Dublin, where it’s made — the transportation ruined it, he said. I feel the same way about seafood in Vermont. Vermont! And don’t get me going about seafood restaurants in Colorado. I picture rows of secret, underground tanks, slightly phosphorescent, frothing, each one etched with a deranged scrawl: Fresh Colorado cod, grouper, mussels, human, whelk, penguin. No thank you; I’ll have the crêpes.

Maine and Massachusetts, sure, good stuff. Just be aware of your surroundings. My mom’s lobster salad at Ruth and Wimpy’s in Hancock, Maine, was a salad with an entire boiled lobster on top. Ayuh! But my lobster bisque at Fancy Pants Restaurant in Boston consisted of a single, tiny cube of white in an enormous white bowl. A waiter came by with a white jug and splashed in a drop of white liquid. That one bite was pretty good, but my stomach was still rumbling when the next round of tiny white cubes arrived (the Authentic Vermont Cheese Sampler).

Cousin Scott is an amateur scalloper. He could buy scallops at the Hannaford, but he seeks them out where they live, wild and free. “Why do you love scalloping so much?” we asked him. His eyes lit up. “It’s the thrill of the chase.”

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