In Manhattan, where I lived up until a little over a year ago, the idea that you could go out and dig your dinner up out ofthe sand seemed about as fanciful as the idea that it would materialize out of the ether. When my husband Kevin and I moved to the Cape, though, we heard from reliable sources that it was possible.
We’re very food-oriented, and intent on exploiting all the resources the Cape has to offer. Shellfishing was high on our list and, soon after we moved here, we took what is always the first step in exploiting resources: we got a license.
In the town of Barnstable, where we live, a shellfish license is $20 a year, and it entitles you to a strictly defined quantity of clams, oysters, scallops (good luck!), eels and the markedly less appetizing sea worms. Getting a license is easy; there are instructions on thetown website. We were less sure about how to get the clams.
Actually, “less sure” probably understates the case. “Clueless” might be more accurate. Our first attempt was an ignominious episode involving wandering around on a beach known to be clamless, on a day when clamming was forbidden, using a clam rake to dig where clams wouldn’t have been anyway.
We went home not just empty-handed, but a little mortified, so we decided to do some reconnaissance work. We’d heard that Cotuit Bay was a popular spot, so one Saturday we went out to Cordwood Landing beach at low tide. Sure enough, it was dotted with clammers. We struck up a conversation with a couple headed in with a full peck, and they told us that there was a great spot just east of there.
Next clamming day, that’s where we went, rakes in hand. We hung a left at the Landing, went a couple hundred yards along the beach, and waded in. Within the first five minutes, I’d raked in the firstclam of my life.
I’m embarrassed to report the sense of wonder Ihad when I pulled the rake up and found a two-inch quahog in it, keeping company with a few rocks and some seaweed. I mean, really, it’s just a clam; you can hold the hosannas. But the very idea that you can wade into the bay and dig up something edible has a fascination for someone who’s lived in cities all her life—or for me, at any rate.
Since then, I’ve probably harvested twenty pecks of clams, and although I’ve gotten used to the idea, there’s still a senseof satisfaction at every clam I dig up. Along the way, I’ve even learned a thing or two.
GET A LICENSE
Don’t start your clamming career by irritating the hard-working Natural Resources staff who do everything from propagating seed clams to spot-checking your take. Every town issues recreational shellfishing licenses, and they’re inexpensive and easy to get.A family license ranges from $10 (in Truro) to $50 (in Wellfleet, where the oysters make it worthwhile), but most are $20-$30.
Check your town’s website for details on how to get a license, and what that license gives you license to do. Before you head out, make sure you’re going to an area that’s open for shellfishing, and that you’re going on the right day, in the right season. If your town allowsshellfishing on holidays, make sure you know which holidays they’re talking about. (I know from bitter experience that Good Friday is not one of them.)
When it’s warm, you can wear anything you want. When it’s cold, though, clamming is a miserable slog unless you stay warm and dry. If you have neoprene waders, you’re good togo. If you have nylon ones, make sure you layer up underneath. If you have neither, I’d suggest not buying the cheapest kind you find. I found out the hard way that lightweight, inexpensive waders often, after a brief introductory watertight period, leak like a sieve.
You’ll also need gloves, and I recommend the long kind, designed for the purpose, that go all the way up your arm and connect behind your neck. You may not think you’re going to reach into the water up to your armpit, but you will. A glove full of cold water, and the blue fingers that inevitably result, will take some of the fun out of your outing.
And wear a hat. Even a little breeze off cold water can numb your ears.
BUY A DECENT RAKE
One of the things I’ve learned is that a clammer with a good rake gets way more clams than a clammer with a lousy rake. Our first rakes were $5 yard-sale specials, and that’s a fine way to begin. Once you decide this is something you like to do, though, step up to something better.
I’m a big fan of the RA Ribb Company, a family-run company right here in Harwich that makes high-quality rakes in all shapes and sizes (you can see their product line at www.ribbrakes.com). We use the stainless steel version of their “Snappin’ Turtle” model, which, with its long, curved tines, looks like Freddy Krueger’s clam rake. Not only is it highly efficient (it digs deep into the sand), it can be serviced right here on the Cape.
Raking in a rocky seabed will sometimes, inevitably, cost you a tine, and I lost one over the summer. I took my rake to RA Ribb, and they welded a new one on for me while I waited. Since I’d only hadthe rake a couple of months, they didn’t even charge me.
FIND A SPOT
Each town has hot spots, and those hot spots change as one gets clammed out and another one opens. When Kevin and I first moved here, we heard that shellfishers were notoriously closed-mouthed about clamming locations, but that hasn’t been our experience. There’s a kind of fellowship among those of us who show up, week after week, at the beach at low tide, rake and bucket in hand, and we’ve found that just about everyone is friendly and forthcoming.
We’ve also had help from the professionals. Kris Clark, Shellfish Technician for Barnstable, is almost always to be found on one of the clamming beaches, seeding quahogs, organizing volunteers or running her Clamming for Kids workshops. She’s an exuberant proponent of shellfishing—we call her the Clambassador—and will tell you exactly which areas are open, where the best spots are, and which beaches are slated to open soon.
HONE YOUR TECHNIQUE
I thought I was getting pretty good at clamming until I went out one day with a friend who’s been clamming all her life. After about fifteen minutes, I had almost a third of a peck and was feeling pretty good about myself until I looked in Linda’s basket. Almost full. Almost full! And she’s standing three feet away from me!
Then she let me in on the secret. “You’re traveling too much,” she said. She explained that, once you find a clam, you stick with the hole and gradually expand it by scooping out the sides. Only whenyou come up dry for quite a while should you move on. That one little piece of advice has made my clamming expeditions more efficient by half. Linda still outclams me, but not by quite as much.
MASTER CLAM COOKERY
One of the best parts of clamming comes after the clams are all gathered, the waders rinsed and the beer opened. That’s when you argue about whose chowder recipe is best. Or,more likely in these parts, whose mother’s chowder recipe is best. If you’re going to clam regularly, though, you need to branch out beyond chowder and baked stuffed.
Clams work in pasta sauce and paella, Bouillabaisse and potpie. Their flavor is mild and almost neutral, and clams play well with other, stronger flavors. They can go Chinese-style with cilantro and fermented black beans, or Thai with lemon grass and coconut milk. Mix them with spicy sausage like linguiça or chorizo. Curry them with chilies and ginger. Stew them with saffron and tomato.
Or, if you’re a purist, just put them on ice and eat them straight up—and think of the advantages of living on Cape Cod. Littlenecks run $1 a pop in Manhattan.