Togue Brawn sits on cobblestones between two piers, preparing a makeshift picnic on top of a block of granite as dozens of seagulls watch unblinkingly from surrounding rooftops. She unpacks jars of salt and achar and olive oil and, finally, the meal’s centerpiece: a plastic to-go container full of raw scallops, hauled out of the ocean only yesterday.
Brawn slices each plump, ivory-colored cylinder into thinner disks she lays on a platter. “The texture is what you should really notice, and the flavor is good and not fishy,” she says, then a confession: “I am obsessed with scallops.” She wants everyone else to be obsessed with scallops, too. And since the pandemic caused a swell of enthusiasm for mail-ordered foodstuffs — including Brawn’s scallops — that time may well be nigh.
Twelve years ago, Brawn started her company, Downeast Dayboat, to introduce dayboat-harvested Maine scallops to the masses. Brawn buys from small boats that often drag the bottoms of inshore crags along the Gulf of Maine and land their bounty a few hours later — as opposed to the bulk of sea scallops eaten in the U.S., which are often sourced from large trip boats that work federally managed offshore waters three or more miles off the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Virginia, staying at sea for a week or more (overall, Maine lands less than 2 percent of U.S. sea scallops). Because of the challenges and expense of quickly shipping out her fresh dayboat scallops, comparatively few people outside of Maine have gotten to sample Brawn’s.
“I started this business to show that [our] scallops are truly different,” Brawn says, noting that the state’s close-to-shore scallop populations gives scallops harvested in different areas their own regional “merroir,” like oysters; some taste creamy, others sweet, still others have a bitter algae bite. Brawn has lugged scallops across the country to conduct taste-tests for chefs, FedExed tidy packages of scallops and recipes to the retail curious, proselytized to whoever would listen about this “vastly superior” product. “I have customers that specifically request, Can you give me some of James’s scallops the next time he’s in the Skillings River? You can taste the difference, unlike with generic offshore stuff.”
These scallops also owe some of their exceptionalism to careful handling. Explains Tad Miller, a dayboat fisherman who sometimes supplies Brawn, a trawler heads out at sunrise to whichever fishery is open; all told, a season runs from December to about March. It tows a metal dragger along the ocean bottom, “tickling up the scallops,” he says. These are checked for size; “Anything smaller than four inch goes back overboard.” The scallops are shucked on board, their shells also tossed to prevent spreading biotoxins (the adductor muscle, which is the part we eat, tends not to retain these). They’re stored “dry” as Brawn defines the word, without water or chemical additives, in five-gallon buckets that are brought to shore when the day’s pound limit is reached. Those purchased by Brawn are usually shipped out the next day — anywhere from 150 to 1,000 pounds per week to almost 3,000 customers across the U.S., a number that’s surged 500 percent since 2020.
This treatment contrasts with the “wet” scallops that result when dealers use sodium tripolyphosphate as a preservative, which imparts an abrasive sweetness. For Brawn, ”wet” also refers to the process of soaking scallops on melting ice, which increases their weight and therefore their selling price. Perhaps even more unforgivable to her, waterlogged scallops are “rubbery and broken-down and gross,” she says. Most consumers have likely eaten scallops that fall under one of these classifications of wet.
Brawn insists that her business is an extension of her broader mission to promote her state’s bivalves and to protect the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen. Before she started Downeast Dayboat, she was a resources management coordinator for Maine’s Department of Marine Resources; she currently sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, helping draft regulations. She’s known for fighting to prevent the overharvest of part of the federally managed scallop fishery, at a time when trip boats were effectively exempt from quotas and were pushing beds close to crashing. That fishery closed in 2017, instituted a quota applicable to all, among other measures — and has since rebounded. “Togue was instrumental in… preserv[ing] a right of access for small boat fishermen,” says Miller, calling it a “huge win.” But he says it was also “a big deal for consumers looking to access a traceable, consistently high-quality product.”
Leanne Valenti, chef-owner of Bento Picnic in Austin, has used Brawn’s dayboat scallops in chirashi bowl specials, and Robert Durkin remains an ardent (personal) purchaser after closing Robert’s, his Hamptons, restaurant in Long Island, in 2015. “There’s salinity, there’s a freshness of ocean waters, there’s a suggestion of sweetness. That [Brawn’s] not selling scallops to every chef in this country is beyond comprehension,” Durkin says. Brawn, though, says her business model is a tough sell for chefs looking for consistent sizes — she doesn’t sort, just bags, labels, and sends — and consistent weekly deliveries. “I can tell individual customers, Sorry, I can’t ship this week; the winds are really bad and the guys aren’t going out,” Brawn says. “But with chefs, you have to have product for them.”
One thing that would help: Convincing chefs and everyone else that equally-well-sourced frozen Maine scallops — freezing is generally frowned upon in the “fresh” loving world of cheffy seafood — are a worthy substitute. On thawing, the texture is slightly damper than unfrozen, but otherwise, the flavor remains the same. If folks would accept frozen, Brawn could supply them year-round, supplementing with farmed scallops that are never out of season (there are currently two commercial-scale operations in Maine, the spat, a.k.a larvae, from which might also help boost wild scallop populations, giving an inkling as to how reliant on natural cycles and pristine ocean even the farmed scallop industry is). “I’m all about educating people and I say, Maine scallops should be frozen, and people should be demanding them year-round,” Brawn says. “Maine scallops are amazing. They’re the best in the world!”
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering food systems.