Friday, June 19, 2009

How to dig for clams

Written by Leslie Floyd (Ann's daughter)

Spending every summer on Chappaquiddick turned me into a bit of a CLAM fanatic. MY childhood memories are filled with visions of our salt water pond, children, parents and grandparents all filling metal baskets with clams. I now choose to spend every day off, in my clam pond, up to my knees and elbows in water, searching for those sweet and salty treats.

Ask most children if they like clams and you will hear a resounding"NO!" followed by an extended tongue expression of "Yechhh!" I, however, started digging as soon as I could walk and have been eating clams ever since. The two most popular bivalves on Martha's Vineyard are Quahogs and Steamers. Quahogs have different names for the various sizes. Littlenecks are the smallest and most widely desired for eating raw on the half shell. Slightly larger, the Cherrystone fares well as clams casino and with BBQ sauce on the grill. Quahogs and Topnecks are the largest. Locally known as "stuffers" or "chowda" clams, they can be larger than a man's fist!

The various methods of digging are as unique as the people who do the digging. If you ask my Grandmother, Eleanor, she would tell you the best way is to dig quahogs is with your toes! I have vivid memories of Gramma in her bathing suit and wide brimmed straw hat, standing in the pond slowly pushing her toes through the soft sand. Quahogs lie close to the surface of the sand making them easy prey for Gramma. My favorite method is to rake my extended fingers through the sand while kneeling or sitting in the water. NOTE: Neither of these methods work well for the squeamish.

Commercial clammers and the fearful alike, tend to use rakes. I had a short handled rake with long tines placed one inch apart. This worked well but meant that you rake bent over. The older I get, the more my hamstrings protest with this method. Most of the rakes found these days have long wooden handles and a basket that catch even the smallest littlenecks. When using a rake, it is always smart to look back to where you have been raking once the cloudiness in the water clears. You may find that you have unearthed a clam that did not make it into your basket!

Steamers, or softshells, are much more elusive. Their long necks can extend allowing them to sit 6-12 inches below the surface of the sand. Because of the fragility of the steamer, raking will result in many crushed or pierced shells. My favorite method, taught to me by my mother, is to dig a hole about 1 foot deep. Then, starting with your hands turned outward, slowly dig in and along the wall of the hole grasping the clams as your fingers hit their shells. This method keeps them from retracting their necks and digging farther into the sand away from your reach. Again, for the faint of heart or the well-manicured, there are other ways! My brother swears by the toilet plunger method. Just place the plunger (a clean one please!) on the sand and plunge away! Stop every few strokes to see if you have pulled up a steamer. If you are using a shovel, dig the shovel in as far as you can, then leverage the handle down in one quick motion and spread the sand to one side. you will be able to pluck the steamers from the sand with ease.

By the way, a shellfish license is required! Visit the Town Hall in the town you are staying to apply.

As always, I just ask that you respect our fragile island aquaculture. Do not take more than legally allowed or more than you are able to eat within 24 hours. Place any clams that are below the legal size limit back in a safe place in the water to allow them to mature. Steamers should be placed neck up in the sand, one inch down. If you do not open or eat some clams, drive or walk to the nearest pond and free them!


Warning: Clamming is highly addictive! People have been know to say "Just one more!" dragging a rake through the sand behind them while leaving the water!