In the Shucking Shack

By Kelly Lester

     The year was 1991. I was 14 years old. Scallops had made a comeback, and the price was very low. Local markets wanted to pay my father, Calvin, only $4 a pound shucked. It was at the point where my dad told us shuckers that if we wanted a job, we would have to take less money per pound to shuck or he wasn’t going to go anymore until the price came up. We were getting $1.25 per pound to open scallops then.

    Robyn Bennett, Dad’s number-one shucker, started calling every restaurant in town, peddling scallops. “Kelly, go make a sign and put it up in the front yard,” Robyn said. “Just like old man William Havens is doing.”

    Dad called up Havens and said, “Kelly’s putting up a sign to sell scallops here. What are you selling them for out of your house?” We had to keep the price the same. It was $10 per pound.

    Dad made it very clear: He caught them, we shucked and sold them. He would not wait on customers, that was our job. At that, Dad’s shuckers were back in business.

    Robyn, being an awesome saleslady, got Dad restaurant accounts. So it went. Robyn and I busted our asses and moved a lot of fresh local product and the rest is history.

    Some years were great, some were not. The following year we didn’t have scallops here. I got a phone call from baymen over in Southampton — they had the scallops! Local markets wanted to pay them $6 a pound for shucked meats, just as the markets tried to do to my dad. The Vandyke boys from Southampton brought Robyn and me their scallops to shuck and sell. We got the Vandyke boys $12 a pound and they were very happy. We were happy to be employed.

    Then there was the year we all used looking boxes and scoop nets in Three Mile Harbor. Dad would bring home 10 to 15 pounds a day, still a day’s pay. In those days, George, of Gordon’s restaurant in Amagansett, was Dad’s number-one guy. George got his scallops before anyone else. Don’t we all miss Gordon’s? The best food in town.

    Dad knew I had everything under control. I made sure the shop was clean and tidy, scallops were properly handled, shuckers were paid, and orders went out on time. I shucked away and Dad’s lifelong fishing partner, Brent Bennett, stuck a $100 bill in my pocket for all my hard work. At 14 years old, that was gold to me. I was so excited. It was something I never forgot.

    I would get paid for my shucking, and I would make a profit off other baymen, say, $2 a pound for every pound I sold. I never wanted to make a profit off my dad, but at the end of the day, he would throw me cash and insist I take it. I was so proud when Dad told Mom that I was just as good as he was at shucking scallops. After all, I was Dad’s right-hand girl. We worked very hard together and we made it work.

    Dad passed away a young man, at 54, in August 2007. His death left a gaping hole in this fishing community. Robyn died a few years later.

    In the fall of 2010, I got a phone call from my brother, Paul. “Come to Little Albert’s now. Pick up my dogs, and bring me five gallons of gas for the boat.”

    My neighbor and best friend, Terri, jumped in the truck and headed right for the bay. Paul, gleaming with joy and excitement, had found the mother lode of scallops. Racking the dredges right to the blade, Terri and I going, “Holy shit, wow, that’s awesome!”

    Back in the day, in the 1960s and ’70s, before my time, the old-timers like Milton Miller used to scallop off Little Albert’s and Bonac Creek once the inside waters were either frozen solid or depleted of scallops. That fall and winter, I told everyone that Paul kept half the town employed. As many as 60 bushels in that shucking shack at a time. Shucking scallops that year with all those young men who didn’t have a clue how to shuck was very interesting, to say the least. A lot of scallops got butchered in the process. It was bad.

    “Stop! Everybody just stop opening, please,” I shouted. So one by one I gave lessons to young local fishermen on how to shuck scallops, one being my boyfriend, Billy. Now he’s professional, almost as good as I am.

    The following year it was time to move on. I needed my own place. The cold, bitter reality was that things would never be the same without my right-hand man, Dad. Times had changed and everyone had differences. Billy and I built our own shucking shack at our house.

    The end result was great, because before there hadn’t been enough room to accommodate so many people and scallops. Although I did have a lady stop by and tell me how rotten I was for setting up shop next to my brother. I looked her dead in the face and said, “This is my business. Robyn and I started this for my dad when I was 14 years old.”

    So we have two shucking shacks up and running, with a total of about 12 fishermen. It doesn’t matter who you purchase your scallops from, we all work together.

    It is a source of great pride that the big fish companies are coming to me, begging me to sell them scallops for cost. I tell them our price is $20 per pound, at least for now.

    Last year we were shucking and open for business on Thanksgiving and through the new year. I must say my customers are great. I usually know exactly what they want. A few years ago I was told to stop talking to them so much. Now I can talk all I want at my own place. I have customers who stop by just to chat. I love it.

    Dad and I once had a customer who wanted a discount. I will never forget Dad saying to the guy, “There’s the truck, boat, and dredges. Boy, take it. You go pull on those irons for a while and then come back and tell me you want a discount.”

    One time I got an order from a local fish market for 10 pounds of scallops shucked — and do not rinse them! I shucked out the 10 pounds, did not rinse them, and delivered them. The owner of the market started in with me and swore I had rinsed them. I’d just shucked them myself. That’s how I open my scallops. My scallops are perfect and I open clean. After all, I learned from the best of the best, my dad.

    I turned around to the man and said, “If you don’t believe me, come to my shucking shack and watch me open 10 more pounds.” I was pissed. First off, I do not lie. I went home and told Billy what had gone on. If that guy ever calls here again, tell him no!

    Come on down to the sucking shacks on Abraham’s Path. Meet our local fishermen. Taste the most delicious, sweetest bay scallops in the world. My scallops are featured in some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan. My oysters have become known as Golden Abraham’s Path Oysters. I thought that was great!

    What fun it is to watch your dinner being shucked by local fishermen.

    Kelly Lester lives in East Hampton.