EAST PROVIDENCE — I was doing some reporting this March along the coast — OK, I was walking aimlessly along the beach in Westerly — when I saw it: a nice hunk of what appeared to be Irish sea moss, an edible variety of seaweed.
A few weeks earlier, my wife, Kaitlyn, had found an old Irish cookbook at a used bookstore in Wakefield. That cookbook had an Irish sea moss recipe — “Ocean Swell Jelly.” We’d been meaning to try it.
Swell, I thought, palming the dry, sandy clump in my hand as I stood on the Westerly side of the Quonochontaug Barrier Beach. But as I studied my clump’s intricate ribbons of purple and tan, I recalled the story I once wrote about a woman who foraged for a mushroom that turned out to be called a “death cap.” It almost killed her. So I sought advice from people who are more knowledgeable about eating seaweed than I, a person who is, I’m afraid, not much of a beach guy.
“That’s Irish sea moss,” Scott Keeley told me. Keeley is a Charlestown resident who’s often been called — by me — the seaweed collector due to his 2019 arrest while doing just that. He has since become a prominent activist on shore access.
And he’s remained a seaweed enthusiast. Irish sea moss is good for you, he told me via phone after I’d texted him a picture: Good for your thyroid. Will make your hair as thick as rope. It’ll help feel like you have an extra layer of cartilage in your knees.
It’s also good for your constitution. In Rhode Island, the state Constitution guarantees rights to the shore — including but not limited to the right to pass along the shore, swim, fish, and … collect seaweed. That right can be tough to exercise, though, because of a lack of clarity on beach access rights and because of explicit encroachment. This plays out among other places on the Quonochontaug Barrier Beach, which is controlled by a network of private interests. It’s only because I was there on a cold day in the spring, not the middle of the summer, that I was able to find good parking and get on the beach so easily.
So this clump of seaweed, in addition to being packed with nutrients, also was packed with symbolic meaning. I put it in the backseat of my Camry. But I had also made the mistake of tweeting about it. I got a response from Antonia Noori Farzan, a Providence Journal reporter who knows her stuff. She said that for personal consumption, it’s better to get the stuff fresh out of the water, not the stuff that’s been sitting out on the beach. Would eating it actually kill me? Farzan said to make sure I checked it for sea lice and dog poop.
And so that’s how I got to be ordering, that same day, some Irish sea moss online. The modern convenience of shipping via Amazon Prime, no sandy shoes required, no dog poop included. I tried to get it shipped online in time for St. Patrick’s Day, which was on a Thursday.
It arrived that Friday.
My plan was to mostly use the lice-and-poop-free stuff I got online, while also adding a dollop of the Rhode Island stuff that I’d gotten while exercising my constitutional rights.
Then I forgot about it. Five months came and went. State lawmakers proposed, but failed to pass, a law that would expand shore access in Rhode Island, using seaweed as the guiding principle. More conflicts popped up along the beach. Finally, in the languid days of mid-August, still unbearably hot but now getting dark before 8 p.m., I thought back to my Irish moss. I rediscovered both the cookbook and the dried, ordered-from-online seaweed. I didn’t find the actual Quonnie Beach seaweed clump that inspired this story, however. I’d either thrown it out or it had been fully subsumed into the biosphere of detritus that is my Toyota Camry.
I followed the first set of directions: “Steep the carrageen in water to cover for 10 minutes, and then drain.”
Then the next: Simmer with sugar and lemon peel for 25 to 30 minutes.
This Irish cookbook is terse. It says to “strain” this mixture, but I’m not sure how carefully to strain — like pasta, or like risotto? So I sort of smush it through a strainer and catch what’s left on the other end. There’s a step that involves whipping an egg white and cream and then mixing them together. My cookbook says that I have to pour the resulting mixture into a “wetted mould.” I’m not sure what to wet it with. My tears of frustration? I splash some water on the “mould” (a ceramic bowl), then pour the soupy concoction in, and then put that in the fridge to chill overnight. I vaguely hope someone breaks into my house and steals all my appliances overnight.
The next afternoon, I opened the fridge. It was time. My expectations had not been high. I am not a good cook. It’s an old recipe, situated in a particular context — Ireland — that I am very far from.
But I have to tell you: It was even worse than I’d feared. I’m sure it was 100 percent my fault. My whipping of the cream and egg white was extremely perfunctory and done with a whisk, not an electric beater. Whatever happened, it was not good.
The jelly flomped out of the bowl with a disconcerting thud and an alien sheen. What gleamed up at me from my plate was the sort of pale, spongey food Oliver Twist would ask for less of. It didn’t taste like very much at all except a little bit like everything else in my fridge combined into one. But that lack of flavor combined with the texture made me feel like I was eating the leather seats of my aforementioned Camry.
Anyway. My friends tell me there are better ways of cooking this particular dish, and better ways of cooking seaweed in general. I’ll leave that to someone else. For my part, next time I exercise my Rhode Island constitutional rights, I think I’ll stick with a nice long stroll. I have to admit, my knee cartilage feels great.