Clamming – A New England Tradition

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Jeanne Cook

We parked along Galilee escape road, as we were told by the RI locals it was a good spot to clam.  We could see dots of people wading out in the distance on the marshy flats. Buckets in hand we made the trek down the steep embankment to the tall grass that surrounded the shoreline.  Each step out of the 3 inch mud made a suction sound, and it wasn’t before long that we were out ankle deep in water to where the floor was a murky mixture of mud and sand.  It was awhile before we found our first clam, and were just about ready to call it a day with a mere half dozen in our bucket, when we were greeted by a family that said they were from Florida. They were a bit rough around the edges, dragging a large yellow blow up boat complete with empty beer cans and several kids hanging off the sides.  We explained our clamming dilemma, and they in turn proudly showed us their catch which was a 2 foot stuffed potato sack.  The mom then told us some of her clamming tricks while one of the children, a chunky boy of about 8, wading in on his stomach announced that he was going to pee.  We thanked her, and after traveling a good enough distance we chuckled about the boy’s declaration and noticed that they continued to clam in the same spot. We employed her tips, and before long we had several dozen clams occupying our bucket.

Clams are an important part of New England’s food culture.  The clams found in the northeast are hard shell clams, soft shell clams, razor clams, and the surf clam. While all are edible, the hard and soft shell clams more commonly grace restaurant menus.  The hard shell clam includes littlenecks, cherrystones, and quahogs and increase in size in that order, although all are of the same species.  They are the clams found in most clam cuisines, from raw on the half shell, to chowders and stuffed clams.  The smaller the size, the more tender and sweet the meat, and the larger the clam the more tough and rubbery it becomes. Therefore the largest clams, the quahogs, are usually reserved for chowders, stuffed clams, and clam cakes because they are chopped up into to more manageable pieces.  The smaller clams are best served raw on the half shell, garnished with cocktail sauce and lemon, or steamed with a side of drawn butter. The soft shell clams are also best steamed and a favorite of many for their sweet meat. They have a long neck, or siphon that extends out of its shell which allows it to filter seawater. When handled they expel that water and because of this they are also referred to as “piss” clams.  Razor clams are becoming more popular, as they are commonly featured on food shows, and tend to be looked upon as gourmet.  They are long and slender resembling that of a straight razor, and I find them quite often while out clamming for hard shells.  All of these clams are usually found in tidal waters, the brackish ponds and bays that still experience the ebb and flow of the tides.  My only experience with the surf clam was after storms they would tend to wash up on the beach in clusters, where the seagulls would feast upon them. Although they are commercially used in soups, I don’t recommend you gather the ones washed ashore for consumption.  However, they are great used as bait when fishing for striped bass.clamWhen clamming, it is best to go at the start of low tide giving you ample time to do your harvesting. Tides can come in very fast and if you are not careful water can be up to your chest or worse.  In my experience, when clamming off the shores of Rhode Island, you must be barefoot, have rakes, and most of all have patience.  When wading out to your desired “spot”, twist your feet with every step in the soft mud and you may just find some hard shell clams along the way.  It feels as if you’re stepping on a small rock, then reach down and sift through a tiny amount of mud and pull it out with your hands. These are the tips we learned from the kind Floridian woman that we in turn pass along to other novice clammers we encounter.  I also have used rakes, which can yield some great results, but can also give you quite a workout, so it’s best to go with friends so you can alternate.  We bring a utility bucket to collect our catch, and keep enough sea water in it to cover the clams. An important tip when clamming in the warmer months is to afterwards wash yourself well with fresh water, or at the very least dry off thoroughly with a towel to avoid clam-diggers-itch.  I learned the hard way after developing a horribly itchy rash that ran from the exact level of the water I was in down to my feet.  It occurs as a result of a parasite that goes between ducks and snails, which are also inhabitants of the same tidal waters. It is also important that you check the local laws before you decide to go clamming, as there may be size and quantity regulations as well as licensure requirements.  It is also important to check DEC water safety reports, as some areas are banned from clamming due to poor water quality.

When consuming clams, the fresher the better, so once we get our harvest home I get right to work.  I scrub the outsides of every clam to remove any dirt or sand, and then sort them according to size.  It is during this time that neighbors usually start  to gather to grab a few choice clams to shuck and eat raw. We dollop on cocktail sauce made of ketchup, lots of horseradish, a few drops of tabasco, and freshly squeezed lemon. What’s not eaten I then cover with water, and add enough salt to mimic that of seawater.  Now to expel any sand or grit from the insides, I use cracked black pepper, but I have heard of corn meal being used as well.  Letting them sit in this in theory makes the clams take in the pepper and spit out the sand.  In all the years of preparing clams, we have yet to get a sandy bunch.

If you are lucky enough to be in any of the clam filled waters of the northeast, I recommend you try harvesting some of your own.  There is nothing like the feeling of enjoying your own catch of fish, eating vegetables from your own garden, or for this matter taking pride in getting your own clams.  You know where they came from, you know how they were handled, and most of all you know they are fresh.  To me, this is such an important part of the food that is put on our tables, and I encourage you to partake in the clamming experience that is so much a part of New England’s culture.


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