Clamming (Massachusetts Style)
These past few years, it’s been a real thrill for us Midwesterners
to have the chance to participate in the New England ritual of clamming. Unlike my husband Josh, who spent his childhood splitting time between his parents in Milwaukee and Massachusetts, the rest of us are still relative newbies at east coast life. Josh and his brother Tod even had their own lobster pots when they were kids, identified by buoys unique to the family. They learned to boat and fish and do all the things that come naturally to kids who live near the ocean.
For almost thirty years, I’ve traveled to Massachusetts with Josh to visit his mother, Barbara ~ before long calling Plymouth my second hometown (just like the Pilgrims). After our kids came along, they too quickly adapted to the coastal way of life. When they were small, Elijah and Lena loved to explore the sand beneath Barbara’s deck as well as nearby Plymouth Beach - a wide, long playground full of tide pools, hermit crabs, and sand dollars. Just like real New Englanders, the kids thought nothing of tucking into big baskets of fried clam strips at Sandy’s Place on the beach. There is something so sweet about the taste of those clams and the sounds of the squawking seagulls and crashing waves rolling in on the rocky beach below.
A picture of the kiddos on Plymouth Beach Circa 2002 or so
About five years ago, we had the pleasure of meeting my mother-in-law’s good friend, Michael Ballo. Mike is originally from Brooklyn, and while echoes of his origin remain in the sound of his voice, he has called Plymouth home for many years. He knows all the best spots for fishing, as well as for finding clams and oysters – a true New Englander.
In recent years, the highlight of our day trips to Martha’s Vineyard on Mike’s boat has been stopping to clam before returning to
the marina. He pulls the boat into a small cove and once anchored, we all wade into the water toward the little strip of beach carrying coolers, towels, and clamming equipment high above our heads. In the time it takes my husband Josh and I to chill on the beach and drink a single beer, Mike and the kids can fill a whole bucket with hard shell clams.
This year it was too windy to take the boat out, so we switched up our plans and set out by car to a small Falmouth beach on our quest for clams. Mike arranged for his friend Bob Delano to meet us at one of their favorite spots on the Cape. The drive itself is beautiful – expansive views of the water appearing on winding turns in the road, osprey nests on tall manmade stakes full of watchful feathered parents, charming gray cedar shingle houses trimmed in pure white with lush blue hydrangea borders, and boats moored close together in the water.
Bob was already in the small parking lot when we arrived. After a friendly introduction and a “call me Bubba”, the group got busy pulling all the necessary gear out of the back of the truck. Both Mike and Bubba have shellfish licenses attached to their caps; the tags flapping in the wind alert anyone who sees them that they have permission to do so.
(Here we are carrying our tools of the trade to the water)
Clams borough into the sand, so you need special rakes to extract them. There are two different kinds of rakes; long handled ones with steel teeth attached to a small metal basket, and short-handled types with longer teeth and no basket at all. The latter is useful for digging up steamers because they live much farther below the surface than hard shell clams.
Clamming isn’t rocket science. You insert the rake firmly into the sand and then draw the teeth along as you back up slowly, lifting up after each pass to see if you have collected anything in your basket. Sometimes along with the clams, you collect small horseshoe or other crabs that also dwell just below the sand’s surface. Elijah and Lena’s preferred (and easy) method is to use their hands, reaching down into the sand and drawing their fingers through it until they come across the compact hard shells.
For the Midwesterners, here’s a crash course on the types of bivalves we were harvesting. Every clam has a siphon necessary for filtering the seawater. Hard shells have a short siphon and can therefore close their shells all the way. You are probably familiar with these types of clams, known at the store as cherry stones or little necks. The meat inside these is one consistently firm texture. Soft shells, or steamers as the New Englanders refer to them, need a longer siphon because they bury so deeply into the sand. Because of this long appendage, they can’t close their valve all the way. The siphon sticks out of the shell (in a somewhat unappetizing way in my opinion) while the belly remains inside, giving the meat two distinct textures.
(Soft shell clams, or "steamers" on the left; hard shell on the right)
Mike and Bubba are old pros. They planned our trip to this quiet
cove as the tide was going out – knowing the shallower water would make it much easier to collect the clams. They got down on their knees to get at the steamers. Using the short handled rake to clear away a mound of sand, they then used their hands to dig deeper, finding the clams by touch. These guys have been friends for decades, and they worked companionably shoulder to shoulder.
The rest of us searched for hard shell clams, putting them carefully into a floating wire pail to keep them in the water and fresh for as long as possible. The guys stored their growing pile of steamers in mesh bags placed beside them in the shallow water as they worked. Later, Bubba showed us how to determine if the clams were large enough to harvest. He pulled out a flat metal rectangle with a slot cut out in the center– if the clam dropped through the slot it was too small and had to go back in the ocean. At this point, he opened a few of them for Elijah and Lena’s friend, Jake, to eat raw right there on the spot. (After his first trip to New England, Jake is no longer a clam virgin; he ate them raw, grilled, steamed, and fried in the space of three days – good boy!)
From where we were working with our rakes, a little stream curled away from the ocean toward an inland pond. Sea grass, sprouting from a base of sand and mussel shells, filled our view as it waved in the breeze. Some of us walked along the stream’s bed, revealed as the tide ebbed, while Bubba told us how he and his grandson hunt for blue crabs there. These scary but oddly beautiful-looking crustaceans hide just under the grass, at the edge of the water.
As we talked, Bubba spotted one and snatched it, quick as a wink, into the basket of his clam rake so we could take a look. As it floundered frantically, Bubba showed us how the markings on the underbelly indicated what sex it was, and gave us a closer look at the brilliant blue of the claws before releasing it and watching it skitter away. Bubba told us that he and his grandson use nets to collect the crabs, which makes perfect sense once you’ve seen how swiftly they move. According to Bubba, it takes about ten crabs, each with a 7-inch span to make one batch of his wife’s famous crab cakes.
Walking back toward the rest of the group, Bubba and I talked about the simple pleasure and satisfaction of foraging and gathering. We traded stories about strawberry, sweet pea, and apple picking, when you invariably come home with more than you planned, unable to resist putting “just a few more” into your basket. I nodded my head, thinking of my seashell and stone collections at home, smiling as I realized that I had found a true kindred spirit. Bubba gave us his entire bag of steamers, forever proving that his love for finding the clams outweighs his desire to eat the resulting bounty.
Because they are open at all times, steamers take on sand that you need to purge before you can cook them. Mike’s solution was to stop at the boatyard and ask one of the guys to hang the mesh bag from a dock pillar into the water. Seawater would flow through them, and the clams would be clean and ready to pick up the next day when we returned from our boat trip to the Vineyard.
So how do you go about preparing buckets and bags full of clams?
Our favorite way to make the hard shells is to rinse them off and
simply toss them on the grill. Let the heat do its thing until the clams pop open – then remove them to a platter. All this method takes is patience, and a little melted butter to serve them with. Elijah is the master at this job, made easier now that he is 21 years old and can have a cocktail while grilling. The added bonus at Barbara’s is that you can toss the empty shells right off her deck into the ocean. This year, I think we grilled three or four platters of juicy clams and with the help of a few guests we made short shrift of polishing them off.
(Enjoying the clams, the view, & one of Mary's famous Dark & Stormy's ~
from left to right: Michael, Barbara, Mary, and me!)
To make the steamers, try Mike’s recipe: put the steamers in a large pot along with one large, peeled onion, as many knockwurst sausages as you want, and one can of beer. Cover the pot and steam the clams until they open fully. Strain the broth and divide it into a few coffee mugs.
To eat the clams, remove the meat from the shell, then pull the
outer skin off of the siphon and discard it before swirling the clam through the broth, dunking it into melted butter, and popping it into your mouth. We share the sausages, picking them up with our hands and taking bites whenever we feel like it. This isn’t a dainty process. You can take sips of the broth, too, but beware of the stray grains of sand that lurk in the delicious brew.
Now as the leaves are changing colors and dropping, and the temperatures are falling back home in Milwaukee, I close my eyes and try to recapture the images of our East coast summer: the warm sand, the sea, my relaxed family, and platters full of a days’ worth of gathering. Thanks, Mike and Bubba, for sharing your joy of Massachusetts foraging with us, and for fueling the desire to pass this tradition way down the line.