Friday, September 26, 2014


Weekday regatta at Mattapoisett Harbor
August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  There are regattas.  There is alleged sunshine, more than the rest of the year, at least.  There are clam bakes and fresh oysters and fluke sushi and better lobster than in Maine, if you can get your fingers into any.

Light at Mattapoisett
There are camping trips and sailing on ponds.  There are bonfires.  There is precious little swimming.  There is chilly yoga in sunlit patches.  There are car shows.  There are rainbows and sunsets and lighthouses.

Authentic New England clambake at the Marion VFW
The clam bake I refer to was especially spectacular.  It is impossible to sufficiently rave about the seafood around here, and how cavalier the locals are about its deliciousness.  New Bedford, less than ten miles away, whence both Ishmael and Herman Melville sailed, is still the largest working seaport in the United States in terms of volume of seafood caught.  The shellfish here, I would wager, are the best in the world.  As are the lobster, I believe.  Maine is famous for its lobster because they possess a larger quantity of them—Cape Cod lobster are rarer, sweeter, more expensive, and more succulent.  Scallop boats out of New Bedford bring in more money than the famous king crab boats in Alaska.

Clam closeup
Then there are the clams.  New England clambakes are legendary, even among those who have never been here.  The clambake is a traditional method for preparing seafood, using steamed seaweed and heated rocks buried under the ground.  In many places around the Cape, bars and restaurants advertise “authentic” clambakes.  But the one we attend, and that I blogged about way back when, in one of my earliest posts, actually *is* authentic.  It’s held at the VFW, and has been the same for decades.  The same, except now attendance is dwindling, with only 150 left of the 500 who used to attend annually.  Sadly, of the benches that were filled up when we attended eight years ago, only half were full this year.  They said they didn’t even break even this year, as membership in the VFW dwindles.

He ate four quarts--and flashes me a four to prove it
I understand, because it still feels like a steal to me.  $32 for all-you-can-eat steamed clams, haddock, sausage, corn, potatoes, butter, brown bread, and onions.  All of it steamed in beds of seaweed, dug into holes in the ground by veterans and volunteers.  There were so few people this year that we were able to fill up huge bags full of clams and corn to take back home with us.  Later, we transformed them into clam scampi.

A volunteer rakes the seaweed--still the same seaweed, the same rocks
It’s sad to me.  The VFW, and social organizations like it—clubs, churches, leagues—are the institutions that hold America together, that keep us strong.  When I was in college a book came out called “Bowling Alone.”  It told of the collapse in American community organizations from the fifties and sixties till today.  Back then, people joined bowling leagues, or the AmVets, or local social clubs.  Now we bowl alone.  We live, as we dream, said Conrad—alone.

Now people sit on their asses and watch television.  Play computer games.  Mess with the internet on their smart phones.  We shop at big-box stores.  We don’t go wade for quahogs or check lobster traps.  We don’t dig kelp and rocks to prepare food on a beach.  We buy bargain chicken grown in factory farms, chickens that can’t walk, that never see the light of day.  I’m one of them—don’t get me wrong.  Maybe we’ve gained something—freedom, Wikipedia—but we’ve lost a lot too.

Not that the seafood’s necessarily any better than farmed meat.  Grillabongquixotic doesn’t eat seafood for ethical reasons, after seeing firsthand the way the ocean’s been fished out.  These new fishing shows (Wicked Tuna, Dangerous Catch) glorify the fishermen out there, but ignore the quantities being taken and the dwindling fishery.  Scientists estimate that human beings have already reduced the population of big fish in the ocean to 10 percent of what it was in 1950.  We’ve eaten 90 percent of the fish that we had.  Already in Massachusetts, bay scallops, the sweetest of the shellfish, are gone.  This used to be the only place in the world where you could eat them.  Now there is not enough sea grass to support their reproductive cycle.  How many years till there aren’t any clams?

Some people eat meat and don’t eat fish—better to eat factory-farmed meat than fish out our remaining wild food.  But then some people don’t eat beef for ethical reasons.  Cattle emit methane (methane could provide electricity for us, I argue, but no one listens) and are grown on factory farms.  Chickens and eggs and hogs are problematic, too, with the vast pools of toxic waste their production manufactures.

In Thailand, I met a traveler from Peru.  He didn’t eat soybeans or any soy product.  He refused to.  He’d seen the forest in Peru being clearcut for soybean fields.  It was the first time I’d seen someone who ate meat, but not tofu, for ethical reasons.

So in August we ate our clams, bottom feeders, and we’ll keep eating them until they’re gone, I suppose—until the New England coast is remade by aquaculture.  Aquaculture and algae are among the few things that can save us from climate change, I believe.  Offshore wind and algae farms, with oysters and shellfish beneath the surf for protein.  Delicious, nutritious, and good for the planet.

Plus there’s all that butter.

August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  But now it’s September, and already it’s getting colder, the trees tinged with red.  Now it’s September, and as House Stark like to remind us, winter is coming.  Winter is coming, and with it the cold.