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Harvesting dinner and jewelry from the sea

Easy to cut and shape, local Sea Scallops are one of Mercy Reed's favorite species to eat, and to work with in the jewelry studio.
Elspeth Hay
Easy to cut and shape, local Sea Scallops are one of Mercy Reed's favorite species to eat, and to work with in the jewelry studio.

Mercy Reed grew up on the water in Nantucket Sound.

"I grew up a fisher person, you know, we were shellfisher people, and, steamers, specifically quahogs," she said.

Mercy’s parents ran a boat together — a commercial quahog dragger. And they wasted nothing. Not even the empty shells of the seafood they brought home to eat — inspired by Indigenous Wampanoag tradition, Mercy’s mother turned these shells into beautiful hand-made beads — some of the largest shell beads in the world. When Mercy got older, she started shellfishing commercially too and working in restaurants, serving local clams and oysters on the half shell — and she realized that like her mother she wanted to honor these shells by making them into something beautiful.

"So she'll tell everybody, like, I'm self-taught, too, because I wouldn't let her tell me how to do anything, you know, cutting the tips of my fingers off and granting them down to nothing and all the things that happened in the beginning and still do now."

Mercy developed a style of her own — long shell dagger earrings made from conch and cascading waterfall earrings from pieces of sea scallops and deep water mussels. Very quickly, she discovered that just as they do in the kitchen, different shellfish species have different uses in the jewelry studio.

"The shell is dramatically different from one species to the next in its density. The quahog is really dense, um, steamers, not so much," Mercy explained.

Elspeth Hay

"Soft shell clams, they fall apart. Razor clams are incredible. They're also really thin. Mussels are incredible. I do work with those. They're very thin, but they're a little more dense. They seem to hold up better. But yeah, we started with quahog and sea scallop and mussel and oyster, all local shellfish that we were selling, eating and reselling the shell after turned into jewelry."

Mercy sold her jewelry on the side at first — mostly to people she worked with at local restaurants.

"And I think I did OysterFest, that was one of my first shows, in I don’t know that was like 2004, 2005, and everyone was like this is beautiful and great and it was so uplifting and amazing to be supported by all of my friends and all of these amazing humans and it just so happened that half of them worked in restaurants and they would wear my creations and the jewelry would sell itself off their ears. It was amazing."

Mercy felt an incredible sense of connection — here was this community of people working with and appreciating local shellfish in so many different ways. Since then, that sense of connection has only grown. There are so many overlaps — today when she works in her studio, Mercy wears her old commercial fishing gear because the sanding and grinding she does is all underwater. And she says that she can’t go out to eat anymore without thinking about that full circle — and how the part that’s usually discarded might turn into something beautiful.

"I am really way more interested when I'm being served food at a restaurant what the shell looks like. And, you know, potentially like finding a friend who works in the kitchen and being like, Hey, what? These shells are beautiful. Looking like, can I get a few?"

This is how Mercy has ended up making earrings from the Queen conchs used in Jamaican conch fritters and the orangey shells of local whelk. I asked if she ends up eating more shellfish than she wants to, but she says she doesn’t think that’s possible.

"I don't think you can have too much shellfish. I however do have like massive amounts of sea scallops in my freezer and quahogs and chowder bases like chowder that are going to happen. And they will."

Not always in her house, maybe but always in someone’s kitchen — a relative’s, or a friend’s. The eating after all, is how Mercy’s jewelry work started — and it keeps coming full circle.

Elspeth Hay

Mercy Reed’s Half Moon Chowder

• 6 to 7 pounds large cherrystones or quahogs
• 3 cups water
• 4 ounces fatty slab bacon or salt pork
• 2-4 TBSP unsalted butter if needed
• 2 large leeks cut into half moons
• 4-5 sprigs thyme
• 1 dried bay leaf
• 1 pound potatoes roughly chopped into small cubes
• 1 – 2 cups heavy cream
• 1/4 cup potato starch
• 1/4 cup water
• 1/2 cup dry white wine

Get your boots on and get out on the flats and dig your self some quahogs or go barefoot and dig them with your toes like I do if you dare…
Once you’re home with your treasures place the clams under cold running water, and scrub them with a soft brush to remove any dirt or debris.
Place clams in a freezer bag or an airtight freezer-safe container.
Once frozen (about 2 hour’s depending on the size, I usually just leave them over night) remove from freezer and let stand on the counter in a bowl.
Time to shuck…
Make sure you have sturdy work surface and that you use a clam knife.
Align the clam knife with the shell's outer edge. Carefully but firmly, push the blade between the shells, working inward.
The clam is frozen but you should still be able to get the knife in and through the muscle. Pry open the frozen clam and scrape out all the contents from the shell into a big bowl. When all your clams have been shucked they will begin to thaw quickly. Put them into the fridge to continue thawing. Let them stand in the fridge for about an hour.
Once thawed you can separate the clams from the juice. I use a large colander. Obviously reserve this precious juice. You should have about four cups.
Chop the potatoes and salt pork or bacon.
Chop the leeks with the tops removed, halved and cleaned, then sliced into half moons. Cube the potatoes and bacon.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven, add butter, and turn heat to medium-low. Add bacon or salt pork, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the pork has started to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove pork from fat, and set aside.
Add the leeks to the fat, and cook, stirring regularly until they are soft about 10 minutes. Stir in potatoes and wine, and continue cooking until wine has evaporated and the potatoes have started to soften, for about 3 minutes. Add enough clam broth to just cover the potatoes, about 4 cups, add the thyme and the bay leaf. Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently until potatoes are tender, approximately 7 minutes.
When potatoes are tender, add cream and stir in your clams and reserved bacon. Add black pepper to taste. Let it come to a simmer, and remove from heat. (Do not let chowder come to a full boil.) Fish out the thyme and the bay leaf, and discard. The chowder should be allowed to sit for a while to cure. Reheat it to a bare simmer before serving.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.