When it comes to shellfish, oysters get all the glory. It’s understandable, since they’ve played a significant role in the history of cuisine. But scallops? Those beautiful bivalves are a bit of a culinary mystery.
Despite their current popularity, you might be surprised to learn that scallops were often more prized for their aesthetically-pleasing shells than the rich, sweet flavor of their meat. But these days, it seems like almost every fine dining establishment with seafood on the menu has its own take on them, from ceviche to pan-seared to provencal. What’s more, East Coast scallop fisheries are positively booming.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Underappreciated Treasures of the Deep
As you may know, the earliest settlers in what we now know as New England had access to a bounty of seafood. From fish to eel to a wide variety of shellfish, they had their pick of oceanic delights. By the time the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of Cape Cod in the 1600s, Europeans had been fishing for cod on nearby George’s Bank (a.k.a. St. George’s Bank) for well over a century.
Wild Atlantic scallops, which grew prodigiously in those cold northern waters, were also inevitably harvested for food. However, they weren’t considered highly desirable. Food historian Sandy Oliver, author of “Saltwater Foodways” and “Maine Home Cooking,” explains, “Scallops and mussels…ranked far below oysters, clams, and lobsters. Since scallops have a funny sweet taste, it didn’t line up with what people liked back then.”
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But tastes change, and an appreciation for scallops in the U.S. gradually increased throughout the 19th century. One of the earliest known written recipes for cooking scallops, which called for lightly sauteeing or stewing them, was published in 1846 in “Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book.” Over the following decades, recipes for fried, boiled, steamed, stuffed, and pickled scallops began to appear more often in cookbooks. By the 1920s-30s, they had become a regular part of the American diet, especially in coastal communities.
By the mid-20th century, dishes like Coquille St. Jacques, which features scallops served in the shell with butter, cream, cheese, shallots, and herbs, appeared on the menus of French restaurants in cities nationwide. Meanwhile, fried scallops could often be found (and still can) at seaside clam shacks and other casual dining spots.
Wild Scallops Are Back in Business
If your idea of a great New England vacation is eating your weight in seafood, the odds are in your favor. According to Michael Gagne, director of business development for the Ipswich Shellfish Group, overfishing caused shellfish prices to skyrocket about a decade ago. However, thanks to recent conservation and sustainability efforts, the wild sea scallop population has come back and continues to thrive. As a result, he says, “You’re going to start to see them at a more reasonable price.”
While scallop fisheries can be found all the way down the coast to Virginia, Gagne maintains that the cold northern waters of New England yield better quality. “You get that sweet taste and more flavor. A lot of that has to do with where the scallop comes from,” he explains. His favorites include those harvested off the coast of Gloucester, Mass., in an area called Jeffreys Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.
While it may seem like other types of shellfish in the region get all the attention, don’t be fooled. “We are clam and lobster people,” native New Englander Oliver admits. “But scallops are an added bonus.”
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