3 October 2013
I meet John at the landing of the Parker River in Newbury, a landing first used by those who settled the area between 1635-1660. He backs the truck down the ramp. A green crab scuttles into the water.
We are both wearing diver’s booties, but he is wearing shorts and no shirt to my long-sleeves, pants and hat with earflaps. I am the scientist and he is the native.
We slip the kayaks in and paddle east.
The early evening has a welcoming warmth, one that holds you like a bourbon buzz. The wind is flat and without a whisper, as is the water. The falling tide pulls us along an astronomical conveyor belt towards the sound. Twenty minutes later we drag our kayaks onto the exposed muddy island.
We are here to dig soft-shell (Mya arenaria) clams. John has clammed most of his life; he stood with his father in the expansive mudflats of Essex and Gloucester as a kid. Today he clams in Newbury because, as he says with Yankee pride, these are, “The best in the world.” He not shy to add, “the flavor and the texture of the clams are superior.” John feels so strongly about these clams that even though he lives just two towns away, he pays a non-resident fee for these clams. Ipswich, a town over, is world-famous for its clams. Even growing up in Arkansas I had heard of Ipswich clams. Now I’m standing with this Yankee among the triad of the best clams in the world courtesy of the marine muds of Newbury, Ipswich and Rowley.
John walks looking at the mud, the mud slurping with his footsteps. He’s looking for smooth, undisturbed surfaces perforated with button-sized holes. These holes are where the clams’ siphons extend. Clams inhale water for oxygen and food and exhale wastes through fleshy siphons. For soft-shells, this lifestyle allows the clam to bury itself deep in the mud (>1 foot) and away from predators while still having access to food. This is important because the soft-shelled clam gets its name from its thin, brittle shell, a shell with the rigidity of a crisp, wafer-thin cracker. A cracker-shell offers little protection from the crushing claws of crabs or the jabbing bills of gulls.
John sets down his wire basket and digs a 14-inch deep hole. This is a hole to stand in so he doesn’t have to bend down as far and wrench his back as much. Then he “Works the wall so [he] can get a good turn.” He works in a radius gently slipping the wide tines of his short-handled clam rake into the wall and pulling it towards him so it falls over. A ‘good turn’ is a piece of pulled-away mud wall that yields at least three or four clams. He says the key is to, “pluck the clams from the wall without breaking them.”
Easier said than done, my friend. Easier said than done. Within a few turns he hears it. “Damn.” He’s grazed a clam with his clam rake and its shell shattered. He flings it behind him. The waiting herring gull rushes over for an easy meal.
The background is abuzz with the outboards of other clammers tearing through the low tide in shallow boats. One, then two other clammers arrive to our flat. They are quiet, stoic and set to work. No time for chit-chat. Low tide only affords four hours of clamming. One clammer pulls a small sled behind him. He’s a commercial clammer. He is stocky. He pulls off his shirt and reveals a broad back of bricks. He pushes tiny earbuds into his ears, selects his music and begins digging with the flinging fierceness of a dog digging for a prison break. He will try to dig forty to fifty pounds today.
John and I are slower and less profitable. John is a mess-clammer, meaning he only applies for day-licenses and collects 10 quarts. Our quota is small for today, but the work is still hard. Once the basket is nearly full, he hands the muddy clam rake to me.
I jam the clam rake into the mud, yank back the mud-wall. Glistening, gooey innards drip down my tines. I have skewered two perfect-sized clams. To the gulls they go. John, with the patience and tone of the middle-school teacher that he is, shows me how to gently sink the tines of the rake into the mud and to pull back to save both my back and the clams. I slide the tines into the mud and pull back gently. I’m impressed by the sucking strength of the mud that pulls back. I tug again and the mud wall falls to my feet. I pluck four clams from the wall. A good turn. I see a fifth one and dig with my fingers. Then I hear the crack of the shell, like a crisp, thin cracker snapping. Another for the gull who feasts. After a few more turns and few more mortalities, I give the rake back to the professional to finish it out.
I walk around the broad flat. There is a serenity to the evening. John is silhouetted against the evening sun, I can make out the individual tines of the clam rake. He and the other clammers cast long and active shadows on the mudflat. They are working hard. I, am not.
In concert with the silhouetted strikes and turns and plucks, there is a fantasia of waterspouts jetting two or three feet into the air throughout the flat. The clams are squeezing the valves of their shells together to purge wastes from their bodies. These waterspouts are why these also called ‘piss clams.’
Our quota met, John tosses me a longneck Stella Artois. We tap the necks and toast a supper collected. The tide is almost at its valley.
The Stella Artois are not the only longnecks here at low tide. On the opposite and gently sloping bank is a rank of great egrets, Ardea alba. There are at least a dozen in either direction, regularly spaced and standing dead still just inside the water’s edge. It’s not unusual to see great egrets wading in the water, but they are typically solitary. It’s unusual to see so many.
Then we hear it.
A slap of tail . And then one further down. Damn! We both say. Then the water boils with tails and toothed mouths and desperate baitfish. It’s a school of bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, which invoke piranha status with its toothy and finger-slicing mouth. The body of the bluefish is a pack of oily and dense red muscle designed for bursts of speed and agility for annihilating schools of prey. When caught on a line they will shake their heads like a catfish and dive down or jump in the air like a bass. They are exciting. Unless you’re prey. Like the slender silversides, Menidia menidia, in front of me who are so desperate to escape they try to fly.
Those that can fly, the egrets, don’t move. They wait with their serpentine necks cocked until the silversides are driven to their feet and then strike with yellow stiletto daggers. A silverside wriggles sideways in the mouth of the nearest egret before it is gulped down. And then like a set of typewriter keys striking paper, dagger-like bills stabbed the water up and down the water’s edge.
When the waters calm, John and I paddle back in the evening wishing we had our fishing rigs but never complaining once.
When John learns that in all my 10 years of being in the area I had never had soft-shelled clams he has me over the next night for a true New England dinner of steamers*, baked haddock, locally grown corn (or ‘cawn’ as they say ’round here) and apple pie from local apples. What a treat! Made this Southern feeler right welcomed!
John’s recipe for steamers
-Get yourself a mess of clams! (see awesomeness above).
-Allow them to purge in seawater overnight (at least 10h). This gets rid of the grit and sand.
Below is Master Chef John’s wise words verbatim as he told them to me:
-Add 1″ of fresh water to the pot.
-Rough chop a medium-sized white onion, add to water in pot.
-Heat water and onions to a rapid boil for two minutes, then add clams.
-Allow clams to steam for about 5 minutes until the shells are all opened, then give it two more minutes to be sure they are done. Don’t steam them for more than ten minutes!
-Ladle broth from pot into cups and serve with clams
-Remove clam from shell
-Peel skin from siphon (neck)
-Swirl clam in hot broth for final rinse
-Optional: Dip into drawn butter (only about a mm or two as too much butter will kill the flavor of the clam) [Note: John has very strong feelings about people who drown their clams in butter.]
-Enjoy with ice cold beer!
-BTW: Never steam the clams in beer and eat only Ipswich or Plum Island Sound clams for complete satisfaction.
*As you see, the soft-shelled or piss clams are steamed, giving them yet another name! – this is why scientists rely on universally accepted scientific names.