I don’t know about you, but I’m going clamming. Baby, it’s cold outside. The water is like a tub of ice cubes and the wind is whip-sharp against my cheeks, but my kids are out there in the ocean blue, so I’m going. My son Peder is trudging along in the muck in his snow boots, armed with the house-hold hoe, a rusty Uncle Harry relic that sowed a few corn kernels back in the day and is now doing duty as a clam rake. If you don’t know what a clam rake is, then you are from Iowa. No, wait: Missouri. My firstborn is happy. What more can a mother ask for?
We are a family of clammers. It started with my husband the sailor, who learned how to clam from his father, Walter the sailor, whose idea of a good meal was eating something fresh from the sea. My husband first took Peder, 12, and our other son,Henry, 11, clamming when they were toddlers. “It was just so unique and adventurous,’’ recalls Peder. “It was so cool to be catching your own dinner. I couldn’t believe that the food I could eat was right under my own feet.’’
In no time, we were digging up mollusks on a regular basis. Most of our clamming occurred during the summer at low tide. Why then? Let’s ask the expert. “For clams to survive they must be submerged in the water for a majority of the time,’’ says Peder. “But during low tide, for a few hours, they can be exposed to air without dying off. This is the time to strike.’’ Clams – quahogs, little necks and cherrystones – soon lead to other discoveries: oysters, mussels and crabs. I still remember the mussels we pulled from the reeds off Prudence Island back in ’07, tender morsels with the flavor of celery. And how can I forget that oyster retrieved from the Bay on a sun-dappled day two years ago. I slurped it down instantly. We are fearless.
Our clamming spot is top secret. Don’t be offended. True clammers never reveal their locations. What could be more disappointing than discovering that your flat has run dry, thanks to loose-lipped Larry who had one too many at the local watering hole? I will say this: we clam at a tidal flat in the East Bay, not far from a potato field. That’s as far as I’m going, lest I incur the wrath of my beloved.
If you’re about to write a letter asserting that we are breaking the law, put that pen down and walk the dog. I have been assured by my lawyer that it is legal for Rhode Islanders to clam in Rhode Island. Mr. Smith, attorney-at-law, cites Article 1, Section 17, of the Rhode Island Constitution: “The people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery and the privileges of the shore, to which they were heretofore entitled.’’ Translation: go to the muck and pluck! People from out of state, bless their hearts, need a license to dig clams here.
You can’t go hog wild and take home every clam that you find. There are size restrictions. The hinge – you know what I’m talking about – has to be one inch wide. We know this because one day we were clamming at our secret site and an enforcement officer with the department of Environmental Management approached us. He had a walkie-talkie. He explained the rules and showed us a device that measures the hinge. He suggested we get the contraption. We did. Hello, Lucky’s Bait & Tackle.
Clam digging is for people who don’t get pedicures. Roll up your pants. Grab a bucket. Wade out into the water and probe the bottom with your foot until you feel something solid. If it’s a rock, throw it back. If it’s a clam, reach down with your hand and pull it up. If it’s legal, put it in the bucket.
Another clamming method is to kneel on the shoreline and dig down with a garden tool, such as a hoe, a pronged trowel or a kitchen fork. Drag the trowel through the muck, pulling out any clams that surface. If you also find a gold doubloon, keep that too. Sand and mud might accumulate under your fingernails. So what. Grit is good.
If you see blood, it’s probably from a toe cut. “I’ve had plenty of wounds,’’ says my husband. “It goes with the job.’’ The salty ocean promotes healing. Back home, apply an antibiotic ointment, cover with a Band-Aid and brag about your wound to co-workers and neighbors.
Clamming is a great winter sport and it’s cheaper than skiing. My husband came up with the idea. I thought he was being, well, a guy, but he was quite professional. After a successful dig in Arctic temperatures, we celebrated with a dinner of clams and mussels steamed in a garlic and white wine broth. Raw oysters were served on crushed ice.
“On this cold clamming adventure I forgot to bring my hat,’’ says Henry. “This resulted in an unhappy Henry. Right when I tasted the first clam at the dinner table I knew the trip was worth it. A clam by itself doesn’t satisfy my tongue. But if you slather on my dad’s special sauce, it’s the best thing in mankind.’’
Sadly, one thing we’ve never found during our digs is the elusive scallop. “I am constantly researching where they might be in Rhode Island,’’ says Peder. “I’ve never come up with an answer. I’m always turning shells over, hoping it’s a live scallop. It never is. If anyone knows where I can find these mysterious bivalves, please let me know.”
I promise, he won’t tell.