During the summer I sell produce grown at Beetlebung Farm every Saturday morning at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. I don’t find it necessary to have any signage identifying our farm other than an old chalkboard with our name across the top that leans toward the front of our produce display. We use the chalkboard to advertise what we think is best that day, push products that are selling slower than others, or to express ourselves with a rotation of messages both clever and useful.
Last year I was badgered with questions by a shopper over our growing practices; she was adamant about eating organically. I told her we practiced organic techniques but were not certified, which is common for many small farms across the Island. She was not convinced and insisted on knowing exactly what was in our compost, which we make in steaming mounds on the farm and, when properly aged, is spread on to our fields. Fifteen minutes later, with customers backing up behind her and her intentions unclear, I asked her to please buy her produce somewhere else and proceeded to write all the ingredients of our compost on our chalkboard. The list was too long and my handwriting probably too large to fit on the sign and I finally ran out of space. Some of my favorites which I included were: “Seashells, grass clippings, road kill, feathers, animal innards and carcasses.”
This past summer I was inspired by our morning harvest and wrote: “Farming is better than yoga!” Which insulted quite a few would-be customers, though this is not what I intended. I am 32 years old; many days I wake up sore, moving slowly as I make my way to the fields, and on market day we start at sunrise to ensure our product is as fresh as possible. It was my experience that morning, waking up sore all over, that as I began the morning harvest, bending this way and that while cutting lettuces, washing them and gathering other goods for the market, that slowly my muscles felt good again and I felt strong. I don’t believe farming is better than yoga. But how often do you get to watch the sunrise, barefoot while harvesting beautiful food and playing in the dirt during a yoga class? Yes, my back aches at times but farm work keeps me healthily connected to the earth. Working up an appetite while putting food on the table also makes your meal taste that much sweeter, whether digging your own potatoes, dragging a deer out of the woods or plucking food from our pristine waters. Hunger is the best seasoning I know.
This past Sunday my dad and I raked for shellfish on Menemsha Pond together while Hurricane Sandy was beginning to show her face and the wind gusted steadily as the sky hid the sun behind gentle, fast-moving clouds. The water is warm, still leaving me truly amazed that we were the only ones waist-deep in the pond with clam rakes over our shoulders and baskets bobbing behind us. We raked for an hour and when our bounty was safe in the bed of my truck we had a heaping mound of clams, a handful of oysters and about 40 scallops.
We are treated to clams and oysters any time of year; their seasons are rarely closed, but the bay scallop season is short and upon us now, so we celebrate them freshly shucked while we can. I can’t speak for my father, but I wore myself out dragging my rake across the sand over and over again while sifting its contents in search of what lay beneath. One of us always has a knife on hand when we are out on the pond, though it never seems easy to find and what is eaten on the water isn’t counted against your limit for the day. Chess players are known to eat caviar during matches to give them an easily-digestible shot of protein, thought to keep their minds sharp and focused. I like to think of my father and I as human chess pieces while out on the pond, shucking us a snack, putting gas in our tanks with the same food we are harvesting. The clams go down easily with a few chews to savor their character. Oysters are a bit more hydrating and are nature’s energy drink, containing a big shot of sea water. Making bay scallops the perfect dessert, tender and as sweet as if they were sucking on a piece of sugarcane beneath the sand before we scooped them up.
Because the scalloping season is short, stocks are fragile and shucking is labor-intensive compared with other shellfish, if you don’t harvest them yourself, buying scallops at the market can cost a pretty penny. The last time I was at the fish market, they were marked at $28 per pound. This high price is also attributed to the fact that scallops are very delicate once taken to shore and need to be shucked soon after harvesting and chilled immediately to ensure quality. To shuck a scallop, all you need is a short, blunt knife; some people even prefer a butter knife. The tip of the knife is inserted in the gap near the hinge of the shell, and cutting one side of the muscle (what we see in markets) as close to the shell as possible, gives you an open half shell showing a pulsating, live scallop. Most people slip the innards, which include all familiar anatomical parts like eyes, kidneys, intestines and gills, over the muscle, like you would slip a sweat-drenched shirt off your back after a solid workout at the gym. Cut away the bottom of the muscle from the shell and you have your pristine, pure orb of joy.
And as much as I love eating scallops, it is the process of harvesting them that makes them memorable. I love spending time with my dad and sharing with people the experience of harvesting their own food. Last week we took a friend from Boston shellfishing at first light. When offered a clam she respectfully declined while we slurped away, telling us she hadn’t eaten her Wheaties yet. She missed out on some pure brain food, a great workout and my other secret joy when the water is warm enough to go without waders — a bath for the week.
Whole Pan-Roasted Bay Scallops
15-20 whole live bay scallops (we are very privileged to have this option)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoon olive oil
A pinch of chili flakes
2 turns of fresh cracked pepper
Juice of half a lemon
Heat a large saute pan over medium heat with oil and butter in pan. Rinse shells well before shucking the scallops whole into a colander, not just the eye of the scallop but all the anatomy, including the eye. When all scallops are shucked, increase the heat to high until the oil is just smoking and the butter is beginning to toast, adding the chili flakes; add scallops and cook on one side without flipping, for three minutes. Then flip the scallops to the other side and cook until the center of the scallop is still barely translucent. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel or newspaper, crack fresh pepper over the top and squeeze half a lemon. Serve immediately, preferably to those responsible for bringing them into your kitchen.
Raw Scallops with Poached Garlic and Aioli Dressing
20 pieces of raw bay scallops, rinsed
2 cups mild olive oil
20 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon aioli
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Place all the garlic cloves in a small pot with salt, add olive oil to cover the cloves, should be about two cups. Heat over high heat until garlic cloves are bubbling and reduce to low until the cloves are very tender and easily pierced with a fork. Set aside to cool for at least an hour. When ready to eat, add scallops to a mixing bowl with 16 of the garlic cloves, setting aside one clove to smear down the middle of each plate. Dress with half a tablespoon of lemon juice and one tablespoon of the oil the garlic was cooked in and toss well. In a separate small bowl, whisk together aioli, remaining lemon juice and an equal amount of olive oil and water to loosen dressing as needed. To serve, spoon garlic and scallop mixture over the smeared garlic on the center of each plate and spoon dressing over the top.