When I was a boy in the fall I got to watch a process that never failed to fascinate me.
There was an old building in the back of my grandparents lot. The boards were grey with age, twisted and warped so you could see ribbons of daylight from inside.
There was a huge flat table in there, anachronistic in that it was made of steel or something. And rows of shelving for storage.
Some of the details are vague.
Have I ever told you I’m chronologically challenged. I forget, often, when things happened. What came before what. Maybe part of me is adrift in time.
In this old building the ladies would gather. They were older woman, lined and wrinkled and gray. Their skin was leathery with age and work. My grandmother was one of them.
The pickup trucks would roll up, overflowing with scallops. Hugh mounds of them…too many for my young mind to really grasp. I seem to remember them being unloaded by shovel or something.
Inside the building, a pile would be lifted onto one end of the table, and the ladies would get to work opening them. They’d have cigarettes hanging out of the corner of their mouth. A glass of Seagram’s 7 beside them. Kerchiefs bound their hair. They’d talk and chat with each other as if at any social gathering.
But as they talked, their hands were flying. Moving of their own volition, at light speed they flip one shell off a scallop, scoop out the poor creatures blue eyes and belly and other assorted guts to be disgarded, and precisely slice off the edible muscle, letting it drop into a container.
This seemed to take about 3 seconds per scallop, if I’m remembering right.
I would watch, dumbfounded. Huge piles of dirty, stinky shellfish turned into pristine containers of fresh juicy scallops ready for the fish market…but no one was watching it happen but me. The ladies were on autopilot.
Sometimes a pearl would be found, or a crab, or some other curio. One of them would give it to me to inspect. I thought for sure I’d be rich when I got my first pearl. But it was an ugly brown thing that looked suspiciously like a rock to me (these were scallops, not oysters after all).
One of them took time out to teach me how to open. It took me about 10 minutes per scallop and half the muscle was still in the shell when I was done.
Sometimes tiny baby scallops were found. I collected some of those. Took them home to put in my salt water aquarium. I’d watch them jet around the tank, trying to find their way back to the sea.
Then some of them died, fouled the water, and the whole population of the tank quickly followed on the trip to fish heaven.