Gastropod gastronomy

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Years ago, the New York Times Magazine, on its back page, ran a piece containing several poems ostensibly written by dogs. One of them, by Karen Shepherd’s dog, pretty much summed up my food philosophy:

You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
I’ll eat that.

I’m not sure exactly how often, on average, this poem comes to mind – monthly? weekly? daily, god forbid? – but it’s often enough to mark me as a covetous, omnivorous glutton.

Whelks, the pretty side

Whelks, the pretty side

And so it was this past weekend, when I volunteered to help seed shellfish beds.

The town of Barnstable, where I live, has an extensive shellfish propagation program, and the professionals in the Natural Resources department routinely recruit recreational shellfishers to help plant quahog seeds, move beds around, and do any of the other chores necessary to ensure that we will continue to be able to rake up something other than rocks.

Last week, Kris Clark, whose real title is Shellfish Technician but who is known in our house as the Clambassador, got a bunch of us together to seed the shellfish beds off Cordwood Landing, in Cotuit Bay.

Before you put down the seeds (which are not seeds at all, but little tiny clams) you rake the area to get rid of any nasty creatures likely to see a shellfish bed as a smorgasbord. In Cotuit Bay, that means whelks.

Whelks, the business end

Whelks, the business end

Whelks are gastropods, a group that includes slugs and snails of land and sea. Whelks, and their look-alike cousins the conchs, are both sea snails, and the critical difference between them is that conchs are herbivores and whelks are carnivores. It was a bit hard for me to get my mind around the idea that a giant snail in an attractive shell was a dangerous predator, but that’s nature for you. The whelk may not be up there with the grizzly bear or the great white shark, but it’s threatening enough if you’re a clam.

Whelks eat clams (and oysters, and mussels) by wedging the edge of their spiral shell between the shells of the bivalve and then using their proboscis, evolved for the purpose, to suck out the innards. Clams have no way of defending themselves – they can’t run away or squirt caustic ink or do ju-jitsu – so they’re sitting ducks. Since we want as many of our quahog seeds as possible to live to adulthood (but only just – they’re best as littlenecks), removing whelks is a necessary seeding step.

Because I row in the early mornings, I was late to the party, and the predator round-up had already wound up. The catch, four good-sized whelks, was in a net bag in the Clambassador’s boat.

You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
You gonna eat that?
I’ll eat that.

I’d never cooked whelk before. I knew its reputation, of course – mild and sweet, with the texture of rubber bands – but I needed to taste for myself.

Whelks, unwrapped

Whelks, unwrapped

There are two classic dishes made with big sea snails: fritters and marinara sauce. Conch fritters have their origin in the Caribbean, and scungilli (Italian for whelk) marinara comes from, yes, Italy. I was going to go for the fritters, but I try to keep my fried food intake to a reasonable minimum and we’d had smoked bluefish cakes just a few days before. Scungilli marinara it was.

I steamed the whelks for about ten minutes, and then pulled them from their shells. I took off what seems like a kind of sheath, and sliced the central part beneath in half. Out came the innards, off came the little black parts, and I was left with a pile of chunks of off-white meat.

I tasted a piece. Mild. Sweet. Texture of rubber bands.

I put the chunks through the food grinder attachment of my KitchenAid mixer, which turned them into much smaller chunks. I made a standard-issue marinara sauce (but with clam juice to give it a vaguely sea-like flavor) and added the whelk.

It was fine. It was even good. The whelk got a bit lost, and didn’t seem to add much except bulk and chewiness, but the overall effect was a nice, spicy, pasta with marinara sauce that had something weird in it. A weird, predatory, giant sea snail, actually.

You gonna eat that?

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Comments

  1. I admire you Tamar. Just the thought of those giant snails gives me the jitters!

  2. Clams as sitting ducks, eh? Block that metaphor!

  3. Dianne Langeland says:

    You have to get the Clambassador to show you a photo of a whelk with a clam in its “mouth.” It gives you pause about what lies beneath such pretty shells…

  4. I have very fond memories of my grandfather diving for conch during our summers on the Cape. He would swim out off the beach and suddenly disappear under the water, coming up with a conch in one hand and brushing his wispy comb-over back in place with his other. He would collect a bunch and my grandmother would make a sauce with them (I think we called it ‘gravy’, like our Sunday gravy, since it contained the scungilli meat; ‘marinara’ I believe is meatless). It has been quite a while since my grandfather collected conch or my grandmother made this so I can’t quite recall how it was done, but I think there were large chunks of the conch in there.

    Thanks for bringing those memories back!

  5. The feet, even shod with duck running shoes, wouldn’t duck them from Carpenters and Walruses. Predation doesn’t apply to dead duck prey or to predators who feel like dead ducks, but certainly applies, the IRS reminds me each year, to lame duck preterits. I’d prefer a ducking stool! At least I could then line up my ducks or play ducks and drakes without fear of the whelking succor of the Infernal Revenue Services. Clams can neither sit dead like ducks nor die like ducks in a thunderstorm. But serve them with duck metaphors and cliché; they make a delicious meal for a Walrus and a Carpenter.

  6. Sea snail are great grilled or BBQ , very high in protein I personally like garlic on them accompanied by red wine. I grew up eating then on the Islands much healthier then the stuff people eat today.

  7. Jim — I just love the image of your grandfather with the conch and the comb-over! It’s priceless.

    Delfina — If you know the secret to grilling conchs so they don’t get chewy, please let me in on it! I’d love to cook my whelks that way.

  8. Marinate then, with what you ask? Some white wine crushed red pepper , garlic however they will always be a little chewy !!!!!

  9. It would have been better off as ceviche, some lemon or lime juice and olive oil.

  10. Accidental Mick says:

    Try lightly boiling them (not too long ‘else they really will be rubber). Let them cool then cover them with lemon juice and (lots) of finely chopped garlic. Put them in the ‘fridge for 4 or five hours. Drain them and serve with a drink pre-dinner. My mouth is watering as I type.

    • A. Mick — And it was just the other day that I tossed a whelk back. I’ll definitely keep the next one, and give your method a try.

  11. Love, love, love whelks. My mother and I use to collect them in a bucket and take them home for a light boil and then tossed into some spicy ingredients for what I can only call a spicy, Korean, whelk salad. Of course, i would always polish off a few right out of the shell…dipped in a vinegared, hot miso paste.