| || Written by:
Leslie Ray Sears III [Ray] |
It has been said that were it not for shellfish, the Pilgrims would not have survived their first winter in Plymouth. While clams do not appeal to everyone's tastes they are a treat that no one should miss. Cape Cod Bay is unique in that it has tidal flats that are exposed during spring tides allowing us to walk to sand bars that would otherwise be under twelve feet of water. These twelve-foot "spring" tides in Cape Cod Bay are a wonder to behold. They occur near the full moon when the opposing forces of moon and sun cause the water to "spring" away from the earth. The lowest of low tides always seem to happen at 6 in the morning and since it is a mile or two walk to the clam beds you must rise very early to dig sea clams (Spisula solidissima). My best memories are in the early 1960's when we would summer on Cape Cod and Dad would get a clamming license from the town hall. We would look in the Old Farmer's Almanac for the "best" low tide and our mouths would start watering at the thought of clam chowder to be consumed later that week.
Sea clamming morning we have an early wakeup call, dress warm and hope for a south breeze which would blow the water even farther out. We drive to the Sea St beach parking lot in East Dennis. After a mile or two of walking northeast out to the salt flats at the mouth of Quivet Creek between Dennis and Brewster, we would start to search for the telltale squirt marks of a clam hole at low tide. When the water leaves a clam high and dry some sand tends to go into his siphon and he squirts water to get the sand out. You see circular marks on the sand near the clam's siphon hole from these falling water droplets. If you press your toes near the hole you can see the sand turn white as the water moves away from the hole and often get the sea clam to expose his hiding place with another "squirt." Sea clams (some call them hen clams or surf clams) always seem to have quite a bit of seawater in them, even when high and dry. A keeper is six or seven inches across and there is an amazing amount of meat in the foot and adductor muscles. Unlike the scallop which has no foot to dig with, the sea clam has a powerful foot which it can form into a slender shaft, then create a "fist" at the foot's end and finally "pull" itself down into the sand.
The typical tool for digging these clams is a four or six tine clam rake. The rakes are always extremely rusty since they spend most of their lives hanging in the barn. The tines are six or seven inches long and after you step on one of these rakes and visit the doctor for your tetanus shot you give them much more respect. Actually my preferred digging tool is nice, large, bleached white sea clam shell which can be found scattered on the sand bars once the clams grow old and die. The shells seem to fit your hand perfectly and are a wonderful tool. It also keeps me from having another run-in with that rusty rake. The five-gallon bucket was empty when we started out and the pace was light-hearted. We wade through some deeper channels where water is still receding before the actual moment of "low tide." Dad says in days gone by, some clammers would bring horse and wagon out on the flats to haul back barrels full of sea clams, steamers, little necks and other shellfish. Horses were known to get especially nervous the moment the tide turned and started to come back in. No horse wanted to get caught on those flats hitched to a wagon. Modern day four-wheelers have been known to ignore the time of the incoming tide and discover their vehicle cannot traverse some of the deeper channels when the water returns. At the next low tide, 6 hours later the vehicle could have completely disappeared.
The first discovery of a keeper is met with a whoopee and prompts everyone in the clamming party to look in the neighborhood as sea clams congregate in clam beds. The buckets quickly filled up and clams are hauled in the shell back to the parking lot. This is the hard part of the trip. A five gallon bucket of sea clams can weigh over 40 pounds and even when straddled on the rake handle between two clammers it is still a load. The bucket will float some when wading through the channels of the returning tide. But then the full weight returns as you hike back up the beach. You may not shuck clams on the beach although Dad was known to make a razor clam or two quickly disappear from the half-shell. I think he figured if you were lucky ("or skilled") enough to catch the fast moving razor clam that you should be instantly rewarded. One razor clam was enough for me, they were too salty. Back home clams have to be opened and cleaned. My wife will tell you I am not much help when it comes to clam guts. "Only 21% of the whole sea clam is recovered as edible meat, leaving a lot of shell and viscera as solid waste." I don't mind chopping the foot and adductor muscles though. Next is the famous Cape Cod Clam Chowder recipe. You should chop the clams, not grind them. We use clam juice strained through cheesecloth for the broth, fry pork fat (bacon) and onions 'til they’re clear, chop potatoes and mix them all in. Finally add clams to the whole mess. Cook for a while and then a quart of half-and-half or condensed milk to finish the chowder. Don't boil the chowder once the milk is in there or the milk will curdle.
It’s taken the whole day from dawn 'til afternoon but we finally can sit down to chowder. Don’t scoop the ladle too deep into the pot and you won’t get so much sand. At this point if I have not got your mouth to watering, I’m afraid there’s not much hope of us ever making a real Cape Codder out of you. You also now know the origin of the saying, “Happier than a clam that ain’t been dug.” Summer 2001
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