During my time on Nantucket last week, I ordered a delicious dish of scallops from the restaurant Station 21. I enjoyed the hell out of it, as I have with numerous scallop dishes in the past. As I savored their buttery goodness, I thought back to the many meals throughout my life when scallops had pulled through for me. They were always such a reliable food: easy to consume, yet open to a wide degree of variation and experimentation from the chef serving them. Then something struck me. Something that, although it didn’t ruin my meal, made it a much more thoughtful one, which is not always what you want.
I realized I did not know what scallops actually looked like. I knew them only as the lightly-browned, white little cakes that sat atop a salad or assortment of herbs. I stopped eating and looked up at my parents, absorbed in their own seafood dishes: mussels and halibut. Two creatures that I could easily picture, alive and well: one sitting idly on the sand in its shell, the other swimming around endlessly, perpetually confused. I thought to ask my parents if they knew the true appearance of the scallop, but I held back: if they didn’t, which was likely the case, it would only depress me more. So I continued eating silently, all the while trying to figure out if the living version of these creatures resembled their sponge-like, freshly cooked counterparts, or if their true image was something entirely different, something unimaginable.
An immediate search after dinner in google images for “scallops” brought me answers, but not before it brought more trouble. Over three-quarters of the results were pictures of what I knew: the very dead, round little cakes, staring back at me helplessly from their place in a bed of sauce, the frying pan, a pile of greens, even skewered by a stick. It was a massacre. I quickly changed my search to “scallops alive” and refreshed.
My findings? Scallops are in fact shellfish. In other words, they live in shells. This was a twist I could have never have anticipated. They honestly do not look too different from their shelled peers: mussels, clams, etc. albeit they are slightly bigger, with more jagged lips (lips, as in the edges of the shell that look like a mouth).
I don’t know how you’re reacting as you’re reading this. Maybe you find it to be an interesting, fun-fact sort of situation, maybe you don’t care at all. I personally found it to be an anticlimactic finish to the brief mystery that had invaded my vacation. There had to be something more that I could learn from this, some deeper lesson at play.
I began thinking about how the scallop itself might feel. I had recently seen Finding Dory, the excellent sequel to the beloved Finding Nemo, so my natural tendency to personify ocean dwellers was at its strongest. I pictured two scallops, buddies from high school hanging out on a rainy Saturday afternoon with nothing to occupy them. Their intelligent discussion about how most average people do not see the director behind the film led them to start thinking about their own identity crisis, which one of the scallops pointed out would more aptly be called an “image crisis.” This annoyed the other scallop, who never liked to admit to his own vanity.
Obviously, they agreed, the scallop race was plagued by this crisis, where most everyone, both humans and, surprisingly, many of their fellow sea creatures, knew them only from their public, culinary persona. Their opinions on this matter, however, differed greatly.
One scallop had grown increasingly tired of it over the years. He wanted to be known as more than just the cooked version of himself. He hated when others, especially naive humans, mistook him for an oyster, or even a mussel, which he harshly referred to as the “Smart Cars” of the ocean. “A fad. Nothing more.” He even felt clever when he passionately declared, “You know how they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’? I just wish others knew what our cover looked like.”
The other scallop, who was actually a year older than his companion, shook his head (or rather his body), and sighed. He didn’t see the point in making a fuss. “I like our image. It’s a handsome one, and our race is widely respected because of it.” Besides, he pointed out, they were known to be the most delicious. They cost the most in restaurants. They were the delicacy. How many creatures have that going for them? It was because of this that he actually enjoyed the anonymity their image provided. “If we didn’t have that, who knows how often we would be approached? I like my privacy, guy.”
This angered the other scallop. “You just don’t want to think about how they’d react if they saw what you really looked like.”
The dialogue continued like this for about ten minutes before the two decided to go get lunch. One wanted Chipotle. The other Sweet Green. (“It’s the healthier option!”) A new argument ensued.
After my amusement over this imagined scallop debate had subsided, I returned to the central matter. What to gleam from my discovery. Some clear social and topical issues entered my mind. An allegory for racial stereotypes? Celebrities and politicians are more than just their image. How much do my choice of clothes, my haircut, my looks define me as an individual? And would one include those things in a description of “the real me”?
I stopped myself. No. It would be vain to project my own feelings of insecurity, the issues of my own species, onto what really were the problems of the scallop. They deserved better, and next time I ordered them, I would be the diner who knew what they really look like. I’d quietly toast the scallop, showing the deeper respect they, or some of them, must crave.
My mother then suggested we go get ice cream. I thought that sounded like a great idea.