Growing up on ‘The Rock’

A bag of bounty

As a young person, growing up on Shelter Island, or “The Rock” as it’s locally called, had its social challenges, yet as an adult I realize how truly unique and special the experience was. We weren’t SOFO or NOFO with cute little stickers for the car but rather we were IBFO (In Between Forks), a stepping stone via either one of the two ferry systems to either the North Fork or South Fork.

The late fall was a particularly interesting time of year because it was the beginning of the long awaited Peconic Bay scallop season. After school I remember getting on my bike and pedaling a mile or so to my father’s friend’s house. I would park my bike behind his weathered brown ranch-style house next to an old little cedar shake shed in the back. Upon entering, a fishy smell assaulted my nostrils and the chatter of male voices filled my ears. There was the boss man “Buddy,” my father’s friend, his two sons, and a friend of theirs who were already at work, and me, the only girl. I was 15 years old and felt privileged to be part of this small salty fraternity. A single exposed light bulb illuminated the unheated dwelling and in the center was a makeshift table of plywood. Bushel bags of scallops sat heavily laden on the floor, a sign of a good day’s haul, along with several garbage cans within easy reach of each shucker for flicking guts and shells. Small buckets were strategically placed around the table for the extracted jewels of our trade. Each shucker had a bowl for their bounty. A scale was near Buddy to weigh each shucker’s yield at the end of our session.

Opening a scallop takes practice. Rubber gloves were necessary for my un-calloused hands. There were no small sizes so I made do with a large pair of men’s gloves. The briny fluid and sharp shell edges were too much for my tender hands so not using them wasn’t an option. Holding the shell in my left hand, with the more flat light side facing up, I’d carefully wedge my scallop knife, a short rounded dull blade, into the corner crevice and wiggle it in till I could feel the knife hit the hidden muscle within. Sweeping the knife along the inside of the shell, the top would come loose. A flick of the wrist lifted the detached shell up exposing a mass of gooey grey and brown. If you looked carefully, you could see the little brilliant blue eyes lining the periphery. So pretty. I wondered if anyone else noticed. Another sweep of the knife would easily clear away the guts, revealing the succulent, solitary little white muscle which was then scraped into my bucket. An occasional joke or piece of gossip filled the air but mainly all one heard were the scraping sounds of knives against shells and the light thud of innards being tossed into the garbage cans. Seeing one of the other shuckers pop a perfectly cylindrical piece of the white fleshed meat into his mouth, I followed suit only to hear Buddy’s calm raspy voice, “Money out of your pocket.” Such a sweet, fresh taste. It was worth it.

Severing the muscle in half, or leaving a “nickel” as they called it, on the shell never went unnoticed and for anyone who committed the offense, hoots and hollers were aimed at the offender. I had a few and had to concentrate really hard to make a clean sweep each time. I wasn’t as fast as the others, but I held my own. After three hours of standing, my legs and back would start to tire and the cold started to settle in my bones. I was glad to see the last bushel nearly empty. When the last scallop was finally shucked, Buddy would put his knife down, wipe off his hands on his cloth apron (he never wore gloves) and weighed the contents of each person’s bucket. Taking out his wallet he disbursed our day’s pay. 

As the sun started to set, I got back on my bike and headed for home in the chill November air, thrilled with the cash in my pocket and a sense of satisfaction of being with “the boys” and doing a job most girls did not do. Upon entering my house, wonderfully warm and toasty from a freshly made fire, I asked my Mom, “What’s for dinner?” 

“Fried scallops,” she replied. 

What did I expect, it was scallop season.

The author Laua Zavatto’s essay won a Judges’ Choice Award in the Dan’s Papers 2018 Literary Festival for nonfiction.