Two friends and a bowl of periwinkles

A Wink and a Nod

by Christine Conley

A Wink and a Nod

Susie Middleton

Common periwinkles are much prettier than the category 'edible snail' suggests. The mollusks' hard shells vary subtly in color and shade.  

I shudder to think of what the look on my face might have betrayed when my friend Tereza, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Portugal, first introduced me to the edible periwinkle. I say the edible periwinkle because, for me, growing up along our seashore, this little sea snail was familiar more as something to throw than to eat. Climbing along any of the Island’s rock jetties to study closed-up barnacles, my friends and I found it all too easy to pluck the little cone-shaped mollusks from their granite perches. Once in our possession, we’d ever-so-carefully place them between our thumbs and pointer fingers and have a contest with each other to see who could fling them the farthest. Kind of like skipping rocks—only with live creatures. The fact that you might be able to eat them never occurred to me. Yet Europeans have eaten periwinkles for centuries, most likely because the little mollusk is abundant, cheap, and delicious.

Periwinkles, or “winks,” were a prized meal for Tereza’s parents when they lived in the Azores, and so as a child Tereza came to appreciate the seashore as not only a place to enjoy the sun and play in the ocean, but also as a great place to find a tasty meal. As her intention became clear, I could see she was eager to share this experience with me, and that instantly put my snobbery to rest while opening up my culinary mind.

With a still-high afternoon sun on that late spring day, we walked to the end of Menemsha beach, alternately stopping to collect glass and purple pieces of quahog shells, or wampum, worn smooth by the sea. The “end” of Menemsha beach is really just the natural conclusion to the crescent sandy shore that abruptly morphs into the Island’s characteristic rocky northern coastline. This is where we found the chosen home of the common periwinkle. Caught between two vastly different worlds, the periwinkle spends half its time swallowed whole by a briny sea, and the other half marooned on a dry, desert rock. Knocked about by unceasing waves or blasted by heat, the wink is just one of those incredibly adaptable creatures that hangs out in the intertidal zone—the area between the high and low tides. Just as the barnacle—the periwinkle’s longtime neighbor—has evolved a calcareous shell which it closes tight when deserted by a retreating tide, the wink has also developed its own survival device: the operculum. The operculum is a little piece of limey, fingernail-like material, sometimes referred to as the “eye,” which the periwinkle uses to seal itself in its shell. If you eat periwinkles, you’ll quickly get familiar with the operculum, as you’ll need to remove every single one before removing the meat from the shells.

On that day, Tereza and I each plucked two good-sized handfuls of periwinkles from the tangle of barnacles and rock-weed among the rocks. For added flavor, we tossed a couple pieces of kelp into our buckets and headed home.

That evening we feasted on periwinkles, prepared simply using Tereza’s family’s method (at right), and dipped them in butter with a side of crusty bread. With my eyes closed, I could almost imagine that I was eating a mussel—if it weren’t for its small size. The winks were delicious, and while I figured it would take a whole lot of periwinkles to make a meal, I could see how they would make a great appetizer or afternoon snack.

But more importantly, that night I felt like I’d been included in a family experience, the kind that Tereza had fine memories of. The evening created a lasting memory for us both, and I learned that periwinkles are almost too easy to harvest and cook—but to eat, well, that’s another story.