Looking Back: Growing up “Claming”

All of us have events which shape us into who we are today. Events both large and small lead us to various points in life. The following is one example of a bygone era in my personal history which I still have fond memories of.

If you grow up in New England for a large portion of your life you eat seafood, lots of it. If you grow up along the coastal waters and estuaries you most definitely eat seafood. There are foods out there that many on the west coast and perhaps mid and southwest sectors are unaware of. Indigenous food groups are often appreciated only by those who are indigenous to a specific location. The ubiquitous soft shelled clam (Mya arenaria) is such an example. Called Long Island Pissers (pronounced pissssaaars) or New England Steamers (Steeeemaaarrrs) or simply longnecks or steamers, they are soft shelled bivalves which bury into the soft sediment of estuaries and the like, adjacent to oceanic waters.

I used to harvest these beauties from the mud banks of the North River in Marshfield Massachusetts when the tide was out. So here’s how it goes… You need one clam rake, which is a long handled thinly curved, four tined, rake. You need a basket comprised of heavy wire mesh. One surfboard (preferably longboard) a wetsuit and a keen eye for little holes in the mud. You can use a boat but it’s not nearly as challenging. You paddle around the North River (riiiivvaaaa) until you spot a mud flat as the tide is going out. Paddle up to the flat, step off the board and promptly sink up to your knees in the mud. The mud does not produce an olfactory sensation even closely resembling that of Gardenias. It is the polar opposite. You spy a little hole in the mud and work the tines of the rake deep down into the mud until the handle of the rake is flush with the mud. Then you lift up the rake handle with considerable force and a huge ball of brown, greyish, sticky gooey mud breaks free. Sometimes the clam(s) are right in the ball of mud. Sometimes they are not.

Now when the clams are not in the ball of mud they are even deeper in the flat which you just molested. This means digging down with your hands after the elusive guys. A soft shell clam has a thin shell hence the derivation soft shell clam. This means that the clam, which is always in an upright position, (by the way – they remain in the same position in the same hole their entire life as much as up to 12 years.) which dictates that hand extraction is the only viable means of freeing the little fella up from his mud bed. This also means that you cut your fingers….a lot.

A single hole might relinquish 3-4 clams on a good hole. If I am not mistaken they have to be 2.5-3 inches in length or they are put back to bed. Sometimes you can hit a bunch of holes and come up empty handed. In any event it is a long and arduous prospect. You can spend several hours working pretty hard at ‘claming’ as you’re fighting the cold, incoming tide. Then you take your basket of clams, rinse them off thoroughly in the estuary waters and place them on the surfboard, paddle home, and steam the little babies. There is actually a big pot specifically designed for ‘Steamers.’ It says Steamed Clams on the upper two thirds of the pot and Clam Broth on the bottom third with a little spigot for the clam juice. Clam juice is absolutely an acquired taste. Want to know how to tell a righteous New Englaandaaahh? Give them a cup of clam juice. The non-New Englaandaaahh will spit it out and proceed to spew invectives. The righteous New Englaandaaahh will state, “Wooww! That’s some really, wicked fresh, delicious clam juice!”

Now once steamed, the neck of the soft shelled clam surely does not look appealing to some. The grey skin has to be peeled off then the clam dipped in clam juice then dipped into melted butter and down the hatch, followed by beer of course. You might begin to understand why this seems to be a uniquely New England event.

A long time friend of mine Billy Whickham and I decided that we would go into the ‘claming’ business one summer. We secured our claming licenses, our rakes and baskets and with our surfboards, set out for the mud flats of the marshes. We had a great time claming and laughing about all sorts of things until we both had a bushel of steamers apiece and the tide began rushing in. We paddled back to the pier and tried to sell our wares. As I remember, we were informed that we couldn’t sell our clams, nobody would touch them. It seems the Mafia had a corner on clams in those days. Unless we wanted to end up taking a ride with ‘Vinnie’ and waking up face down in the mud flats – we were better off taking our clam’s home and eating them with the families, which is what we did. This was the end of Scott & Bill’s Claming Enterprises.

The reason I speak of the soft shelled clam is that they are pretty much unheard of on the west coast. For many years there was virtually no place where these beauties could be secured, especially in Los Angeles. Since they have to be steamed in short order once wrested from their little clam beds, it was difficult to ship them . But guess what? Brett found them at Connie & Ted’s in West Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd.! These are the real McCoy cooked or rather ‘steamed’ to perfection. No mud flats, no cold Atlantic waters, no rushing incoming tides, no cut fingers, no mud flat aromatic therapy, no Mafia threats. Simply sit down and order and eat. For those of you who have never imbibed in the bivalve I would urge you to try it at least once and give us a shout out about your impressions. Happy claming!

– Uncle Scotty

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