A Sharp Dressed Clam
You stalk the plain, ever mindful of the prey that is all about. You steel your eyes for the clues of its lair. Upon finding one such den, you ease ever closer. You level your weapon and, with the slightest of pressure, you squeeze off a round of ammunition into the nest. Now, you wait. With the wind whistling in your ears, you’re poised to pounce. Hair trigger reflexes are coiled tightly within your fingertips and are set to spring. A bead of sweat forms on your brow, but you’ve no time to wipe it. There, beneath your ready hands, the earth moves. Something stirs from below. You can almost hear Captain Ahab cry out, “She breaches!” as your quarry vaults into view. The tension in your arm releases, your hand stabs forward, snaring the creature and plucking it from its bed. You raise the mighty Ensis directus high. Congratulations, you just caught a razor clam.
If you’ve spent any time walking the beaches of Cape Cod, chances are you’ve seen a razor clam. At least, you’ve seen the distinctive shell of one after a horseshoe crab has helped itself to the tasty treat inside. Long and slim, the razor clam resembles a sheathed straight razor you’d find at a barbershop, or if you spent any time as a street hoodlum in the 1950s, a switchblade. Some species just seem to name themselves.
For decades, the razor clam has languished in relative obscurity, lost in the large shadows cast by other, far more popular bivalves like oysters, mussels, steamers, scallops, and the entire quahog family: little necks, cherrystones, and chowders. A new day is dawning, however! Razor clams are quickly gaining in popularity. They have been in demand in Asian and Italian markets for years. As the wary brothers did after Mikey started to gobble up Life cereal, American markets have now been catching on to this sweet and briny treat. This year they are popping up on menus all over Cape Cod thanks in large part to a boom in population in certain areas.
As with any harvestable animal, several factors have combined to create a spike in the numbers of razor clams. Most notably, years of living in those shadows. If you’re not on the radar screen of humans, your species has a decent chance to flourish. While shell fishermen were digging for steamers and scratching for quahogs, razors were quietly growing their numbers. This is no cicada of the sea, however. There is no eruption to which you could set your calendar. There are ebbs and flows in populations from one year to the next, with Mother Nature playing a large role in the survival rate of the clams. Tides shift sands, erasing established beds, and new ones spring up. Even when a bumper crop is expected, a harsh winter could blow in and pare down the numbers even more. The ocean and the life within it are dynamic, and one area that has changed for the better (for the moment, anyway) is Chatham.
Chatham Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne says clams are at the mercy of their habitat. “Steamers have been on the decline due in part to the seed failing to set because of the harsh winter,” she explains. Water conditions play a big role in survival as well. She goes on to say, “Salinity levels of the water change naturally.” Another factor for the “home-buying” razor clam is the neighborhood. Specifically, the type of sand it likes. They prefer clean sand as opposed to muddy sand. If they get the right temperature, the correct amount of salinity, and clean sand to nestle into, razor clams can settle to a density of upwards of 200 clams per square yard!
Now, most clams just sit there and take it. Razor clams, on the other hand, have some say in the matter. Too salty for their taste? Well, they just pack up and find a new location better suited for their needs. That’s right, razor clams swim! Crazy as it sounds, a razor clam has a few different methods of movement all thanks to its powerful “foot”, which can extend up to half of the total body length out of the shell. It flares a thick collar of mantle tissue that acts as an anchor as the foot is retracted, thus pulling the thin shell down through the sand. It will also force out a stream of water to loosen the packed sand around it to aid in a quick getaway. If attacked from above, the clam can descend to a depth of three feet in seconds. It is with this foot that the clam can swim to a more tolerable location. It simply uses the foot to again forcefully expel water. This time it acts as a propulsion system like that of a squid, scallop or Jet Ski.
Still another way of getting around is the razor’s ability to jump. It’s all starting to seem a little far-fetched, right? The razor clam needs to defend against enemies from below as well as from above. Carnivorous worms like the ribbon worm are lurking in the deep, and the razor clam is very sensitive to vibration. It can push its way up through the sand (think digging in reverse), and pop out of its hole. If it’s high tide, it swims away. If it’s low tide and the sand flats are exposed, the razor will coil the foot under its shell, quickly retract, and the clam flips over. The process is repeated until it’s out of harm’s way or it lands into the mouth of a waiting gull.
Not all areas of Cape Cod have seen an up swell in razors. When asked of this big year for razor clams, Tom Marcotti, a Shellfish biologist with the Town of Barnstable’s Natural Resources Division says, “Razor clams? No, we haven’t seen any big changes in them for a couple of years. Now 2006, that year was huge!” When asked if it’s unusual to see big changes in populations from town to town, Tom just shook his head. “You go down the beach a hundred and fifty feet, and it’s a whole other world.” This could explain why Wellfleet hasn’t seen an increase in razors, yet Eastham is booming on the bay side. The Orleans area of Pleasant Bay hasn’t seen any discernible growth in razor clams, but the tides seem to have aligned to create a sweet spot for razors in the Chatham area. Around Strong Island and Little Hummock, razor clams are being found in large numbers this year, and with a robust market for them, so are razor clammers.
The also-ran clam is finally getting its day in the sun, and shell fishers are responding. While it’s not exactly the California Gold Rush, more and more clammers forsake the once mighty steamer for the razor with good reason. This year, steamer clam numbers are down, fewer than razors. With supply down, one would think that the price would go up. Not so. The razor clams are getting higher wholesale prices despite having larger numbers. It’s the increased demand that is driving the price of razors up. Just a few years ago finer restaurants in New York started to incorporate them into their cooking. Now, the razor, once relegated to being chunked up for chowder, is getting some star treatment around the area and the country.
Okay, let’s go get some of these little critters that everyone’s clamoring for! Razors, like steamer clams, are soft shelled and are particularly delicate. It’s nothing to crush their shells between your fingers. That’s why it takes a little more guile and a lot less brute force when harvesting them compared to their hard-shelled quahog cousins. This is why an alternative hunting method has been developed. “Salting” is the chosen way for harvesting razor clams.
The razor, like other bivalves, is a filter feeder. It filters seawater for nourishment. By injecting a hyper concentrated salt solution into the clam’s burrow, the razor becomes irritated (pop a teaspoon of salt in your mouth and see how quickly you react). The clam will then realize that the neighborhood is going to hell and will want to move. At least it’ll look to move to a less briny area to clear the salt from its system. With that powerful foot, it ejects itself from the burrow and into the waiting net. Shannon Eldredge of The Monomoy Trap Co. likens razor clammers to shellfish ninjas. Decked out in a wetsuit and a backpack tank sprayer filled with salt solution, he may look more like the Orkin Man whose GPS steered him wrong.
With the historical lack of interest in the mollusk, there really has been no need for regulation, and there’s little to this day. However, officials are looking to change that. The Town of Chatham is proposing a minimum length of four and a half inches for a razor to be a legal catch. The method of harvesting is another area of concern for shellfish constables. They want to limit “salting” to the inter-tidal areas, those beds that are below the mean low water mark. Salting on exposed flats could cause unintended, yet irreparable, harm to nearby shellfish that can’t swim away on their own to get to cleaner waters.
With the enormous volume of water that flushes the area, there’s no concern of adverse effects from the added salt to the environment, but what of the clams themselves? In a study conducted by Peter Krzyzewski and Joel Chery of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2005, the effects of “salting” on razor clams were studied. Clams were exposed to a saline solution with a salt content of 100 parts per thousand. After an exposure of only 45 seconds, damage to the clam’s tissue was observed. After 120 seconds, no function of the gill tissue was restored and the tissue appeared dead. It should be noted that the 100 ppt solution is approximately half the concentration that the fishermen use. The question is, does this reaction affect the flavor and texture of the clam? Renee Gagne says no. “The market would have responded to a shortened life or foul taste caused by salting.” In short, consumers would quickly turn elsewhere for a tastier clam.
When cooking razors, brevity is the key. There’s not much to them so they’re fairly easy to overcook. The time it took you to read the last paragraph is about all the time you need. Florence Lowell of The Naked Oyster in Hyannis prefers a different method to steaming. After all, that’s the way to cook those other clams. She likes to open razors up and remove one side of the shell, keeping the meat attached to the other. She then cleans them of the belly. “Nobody likes to eat that part,” she says. That leaves the large foot muscle to be seared in very hot oil for no more than 45 seconds. That’s it. They’re done, but not finished. One option, in Florence’s opinion, is to make a nice sauce to drizzle over the clams. One she likes calls for a boiled potato to be blended with an egg yolk. To that, you add herbs like parsley, basil and a little mint, some lemon zest, pepper, a little shallot and white balsamic vinegar. All of that is puréed and olive oil is added slowly to bring it to the consistency of a sauce. Florence has tried pounding and breading them to fry, but, as she says: “Eh.”
Attention to time and cleanliness are the two big areas of focus when cooking razor clams. Let them cook too long, and you’d have a more enjoyable meal chewing through the tire of your wheelbarrow. Done right, and the sweet flavor of the meat will come through; a flavor many say is sweeter than that other soft-shell clam that has reigned supreme lo these many years. While it may not overtake the steamer in popularity any time soon, it is on the rise. So when you’re out and about and see it on a menu, give it a try. Putting a foot in your mouth never tasted so good.
Oh, and if your secret clamming spot is a hotbed for razors and was not discussed in this story, you’re welcome. It’ll remain your little secret…for now.