The Mast-Head: What to Do With Whelks

It was with no minor degree of amazement that I was able to get a mess of fritters made from a notably pungent shellfish down our brood’s craws the other night

A truism about cooking is that if you lay a breaded coating onto just about anything and fry it up in a bit of oil, kids will eat it without objection. Still, it was with no minor degree of amazement that I was able to get a mess of fritters made from a notably pungent shellfish down our brood’s craws the other night.

I cannot claim sole authorship of this culinary experiment. My friend Jameson Ellis, who shares a certain curiosity about natural harvests, to put it mildly, had mused in passing about whether whelks might be prepared the way people in the Caribbean deal with conch. The question stuck.

The tide was extremely low at about midday on Saturday. Idling my boat over a sand flat that I can usually navigate without incident, I was surprised to suddenly, if gently, strike bottom, stirring up a dark cloud of silt. At anchor, I decided to seize the day and try for some clams.

When I was a child, this particular flat was loaded with sweet-tasting skimmer clams, but on Saturday there were none. There weren’t many quahogs either, and I felt a twinge of guilt taking the few methuselahs I scratched up. In the process, though, whelks came up in the rake, and, instead of throwing them back, I opted to toss them into my floating basket.

Their preparation was simple. Boiled for just a few minutes in salted water, they were easy to remove from their whorled shells. The meat took a trip through a food processor, then was blended with breadcrumbs, flour, chopped onion, an egg, salt, pepper, and a splash of beer (Montauk Brewing Company Driftwood Ale, if you must know). After some oil was nearly smoking in a wok, I cooked rough tablespoons of the battered whelk for a minute or two on each side, then drained them in a colander.

Traditionally, the knobbed whelks that became our dinner are considered predators, attacking clams and other shellfish. It is possible that by in turn making dinner of them, I may help the other, less mobile species that live under the same tides. We’ll see. It was a tasty undertaking at the very least.