How does your garden grow?
“With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”
This familiar children’s rhyme has several meanings to it. When I was a child, it was explained to me this way:
“Mary is a little girl, with her own garden. An adult is asking about it. She explains the garden, has silver bell decorations in it, as well as seashells, and the ‘pretty maids’ are all the heads of the flowers standing in a row.”
That is not what it really means. The poem is from Ireland and refers to famine times, such as the Great Famine of 1847. The Irish had almost no tradition of eating shellfish. Their staple crop was the potato, interspersed with other grains and rarely, meat in better times. The Irish Sea is cold, and unfriendly, despite the famous palm trees in the South of Ireland. Most Irish people, then and now, do not now how to swim and are not generally fishermen. However, at times of famine, the Irish survived off “famine food,” mostly cockles.
The “Mary” of the poem is any given mother, growing a garden to try and provide for her family. She is “contrary” in the sense she has survived. The garden she’s planted is her own sons, daughters, spouse who’ve died of starvation. The silver bells are church bells. The cockle shells are something like the last evidence of a person who’s passed on. Irish people ate cockles when they had nothing else left.
Cockles are native to Cape Cod, although I’ve never heard of anyone eating one. For this reason, in the midst of cooking up a mess of steamers one day, I put a separate pot on to steam about 30 cockles. Let’s get this out of the way: cockles taste terrible. Unlike clams, which are naturally sweet, cockles have an unpleasant, offensive taste something like Brussels sprouts. They are bitter. Yes, you can eat them, and not have any problem about it: I did. But I did not eat many. They are awful.
Contrast these to the common cockle or Cerastoderma Edule of Europe (and yes, that includes Ireland)which do taste quite good. There are over 200 living species of cockles and even more if you consider extinct ones discovered from fossils.
The cockle is a small, saltwater ribbed-shell bivalve clam most often found attached to rocks in tidal pools. To harvest them in Massachusetts, it’s best to bring a small hammer, along with a pry, a piece of flattened metal on a handle like a screwdriver, so that you can pry the cockles off the rocks. In Europe they are commonly raked from tidal flats. They’re prepared just as you would steamed clams: place them in a bucket of seawater and leave them overnight, so that they will “spit out’ any sand they may have inside. Heat a larger steamer pot with about no more than two inches of water until it comes to a hard boil. Add the cockles. When the shells pop open, the cockles are ready to eat. Still, a cockle is just not as tasty as a steamer clam or a cherrystone.|