Down East 2013 ©
By this time of year, wedged in the variety store refrigerator case between the fresh crabmeat and the trout worms, you might just find half-pint plastic tubs of mysteriously labeled “wrinkles.” A sweet and confounding name, wrinkles are actually pickled whelks, and they have remained something of a well-kept secret in coastal Maine for generations. The common whelk (Buccinum undatum) — not to be confused with tiny periwinkles gathered way Down East from rocks and tidal pools and sold live to the Asian market — are an incidental bycatch of the lobster fishery. Cooked wrinkles are speckled, tan nuggets, about the size of cherry tomatoes, with a slightly chewy texture, and a sweet, clean, sea-breeze flavor similar to that of cooked clams.
Terrie and Wanda Pinkham, a mother-daughter team known as the “Wrinkle Girls,” run DownEast Whelks, a small, state-licensed whelk and lobster processing operation housed in a special kitchen behind their home in Steuben. Terrie’s husband, Earl “Perky” Pinkham, who is a lobsterman, collects the whelks that climb into his traps, transfers them to a special smaller crate, and brings them home to “his girls” for processing, following HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) standards. “We don’t eat them ourselves,” confesses Wanda. “But we get Perky to taste each batch to make sure they’re good.”
The live whelks are first cooked in a special stainless steel boiler and then rapidly cooled down. Wanda is usually the picker (her tool of choice being a corn-on-the-cob pick; Terrie’s is an ancient fork with two tines removed), and she picks off the “nail,” pulls the meat from the shell, and discards the stomach and other inedible parts. Then comes “the crucially important but not very fun part,” says Terrie. She rubs each wrinkle individually with coarse salt to remove its natural slime and any extraneous bits of debris and then rinses them repeatedly until the water is clear. “I’m finicky, I know — my husband says I’m too fussy — but I don’t want to send anything out of here that isn’t perfectly clean,” says Terrie. Finally, they pack the whelks into gallon jars and cover them with apple cider vinegar for pickling. A five-gallon bucket of whelks yields one gallon of
In addition to doing the retail and wholesale operation with her mom and holding down a part-time office job, Wanda Pinkham also goes fishing with her dad three days a week, alternating days with her sister, Jodi. “The Pinkhams have always fished from Pigeon Hill Bay in Steuben — my dad and his brothers, their father and grandfather, now my brother, my sister, and me,” she says. “And Dad has loved wrinkles since he was a kid. But he’s one of the few that has turned it into a real business.”
Indeed, the once well-kept secret seems to be getting out. The Pinkhams distribute their product to upwards of twenty stores — from Columbia west to Ellsworth and Brewer and even down to Mount Desert Island. Several chefs have recognized the virtues of this native delicacy — after all, Europeans have always eaten whelks’ cousins in the form of escargot, scungille, and the like. Rich Hanson, of Cleonice in Ellsworth, for instance, has a standing order for plain (unpickled) meat that he uses in his stellar Greek seafood salad.
Sue Bennoch, owner of Ben’s Store on the Surry Road in Ellsworth, has a constant demand for wrinkles. “They say they go great with beer. Lots of guys come in, get a couple of beers, and a container of wrinkles for the ride home,” she says with a laugh. “Before the season starts, local people start asking when they’re coming. And in the summer when they’re listed on my sign, I bet I get two or three visitors from away every day stopping and asking, ‘What in the heck are wrinkles?’ ” She explains and often offers tastes. “Some turn up their noses but lots of other people are pleasantly surprised.” Bennoch sometimes gets a container of fresh (unpickled) meat to make a scampi-like sauce for herself and husband, Steve. “Butter, oil, garlic, [white] wine, a little flour, cream, parsley, fresh basil, and coarsely chopped wrinkles. Served over pasta with some fresh parmesan cheese, if you like.”
Bill Grant fishes out of Sedgwick and sometimes cooks himself up a batch of whelks. “I usually get them when my traps are in shoal water,” he says. Grant cooks the mollusks and cleans them in salt like the Pinkhams do.
“Then I either pickle them, or the meat is also good ground up and made into breadcrumb stuffing similar to the way you make a hen-clam stuffing.” Jenny Black, whose husband fishes out of Blue Hill, says, “Sometimes we pickle them, sometimes we dunk them when they’re hot in a mixture of vinegar and melted butter, and then I also like to make patties. I coarsely grind the meat and mix it with crushed saltines, egg, a little onion — not too much — salt and pepper, then make into patties, fry in oil, and serve on a hamburger bun, maybe with a slice of cheese, tartar sauce, lettuce, and tomato.”
As for the cute name — even noted food historian Sandra Oliver is stumped. “My best guess is that ‘wrinkle’ is a corruption of ‘periwinkle’, but you never know with these old Maine names just how they evolved.”
IF YOU GO
DownEast Whelks (167 Pigeon Hill Rd., Steuben, 207-546-0938, www.site.downeastwhelks.com ) open May to November, sells fresh-picked lobster meat in addition to wrinkles and plain whelks. Call ahead.