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What’s in a Clam

Bach’s “Ode to Joy” poured out of the windows of the homestead at Portage and onto the beach.  The sun was setting and the clams were all squirting in time with the music, as if they sensed the rise and fall of the notes.    

 “I see one, I see one”, brother Mike yelled.  He was only four and on his knees in the sand.  The hole was mostly filled with water as Dad turned over the mud and Mike dove in the hole to find his clam.  We were too young to run the shovel much, but loved clamming as we thought of the feast ahead.  Cappy Berard, a boyhood friend from Seattle, had never seen a clam on the beach before and ate 35 that day.   

There are many official clam names in Washington state.  We only knew them as butter clams if they were small and oblong.   If their ridges were concentric and heavy, they were cockles and too tough except for chowder.  The horse clams were huge and only good for fritters or chowder.  Their stomachs we threw away.  Little necks are  another variety.  In fact, we called all small clams, butter clams, because their edibility was our criterion.

  The best way to eat the little steamers was right out of the pot and dipped in a bowl of melted butter and garlic.  The clams signaled to us that they were ready to come out of the steamer, when their little shells opened up to reveal the delicious morsel inside.  There were two other signals that the clam could give you.  If you found a closed clam in the steamer, it was thrown away as having died along the way.  On the other hand, if the clam was partially open on the beach, he was left behind for the crows and the seagulls.  Only the closed clams were safe and even then we were sometimes fooled by a “muddy”.

A good clam can’t be opened with your thumbnails, but a “muddy” will come apart in your hand.  A “muddy” is a clam that has been eaten by some other critter and the two shells remain hinged, but full of mud.  It wasn’t good to have them in your bucket as they came apart in cooking and sanded the other clams in the steamer.

On the day of the catch, the clams were fed cornmeal sprinkled on the fresh saltwater in their 5 gallon bucket.  They love cornmeal and it sweetens their stomachs.  If they were kept overnight in the house, then newspapers would have to be spread under the clam bucket because the clams would squirt with glee as they siphoned the cornmeal and spit out the water.

Geoducks are the king of clams with necks that can stretch for over 3 feet.  They can weigh 3 or 4 pounds and live for over 100 years.  At low tide, they stretch their necks above the sand and can be distinguished from the more common horse clam by their clean necks.  Horse clam necks are dark with barnacles and seaweed clinging from them.    

Grandma Ada was out on the tidelands and yelling “help” in Danish as she had a geoduck by the neck and wouldn’t let go.  “it’s getting away, I can’t hold on, hurry up”, Grandma yelled.  We circled Grandma and her geoduck and went to work with our shovels, being careful not to cut the neck, until Grandma was proudly holding up her catch for all to see.
Cousin Jim screamed like a banshee, having stuck his finger in the mouth of a cockle, and the clam had resented the invasion and clamped down tight.  Cockles lie on, or near the surface of the tide with half open shells, their necks lying limp on the sand.

We were on the beach by the Portage store when it happened and Jim screamed all the way to the store to ask Cliff, the butcher, to cut the clam off his finger.  He carries the scar yet.  I still don’t know why he just didn’t bang the cockle between two rocks.

Our clam steamer was in two parts, a double boiler and the bottom  had a spigot for the clam juices, called nectar. When the clams were about ready to pull off the fire, Dad would draw the liquid from the steamer by opening the petcock and distributing it to our waiting cups.  Clam nectar is sweet and mild, the nectar of the gods.

The World’s Champion Clam Digger, was a contest at Portage and our Grandfather won it for two years running, that I can recall.  The Sportsman’s Club sponsored the event, and awarded my Grandfather a trophy,  but accused him of hiring his grandchildren to help fill his bucket to win.  We still have the trophy.