Clam-digging, and cooking the harvest, on the Oregon coast
At dawn on northern Oregon’s Sunset Beach, the sky is a murky gray. And there’s a briny chill in the air. At first glance, the long stretch of beach is desolate — a seemingly endless spit of damp sand sculpted into undulating ripples by the currents, with shallow pockets of water snaking through it all. But as we get closer to the waterline, we realize that we’re not alone. The dots on the horizon have morphed into a small collection of hunters. Armed with shovels, buckets, waders and nets, we’ve all gathered for a popular ritual along the Oregon coast. Burrowed deep beneath our feet are razor clams. And we’re here to find them.
With its dramatic windswept beaches and craggy green hills, the Oregon coast is an attraction for its beauty alone. But it’s also fertile ground for clam lovers: The more than 360 miles of public coastline in the state are speckled with beaches and bays filled with clams that range from tiny cockles and lavender-hued native littlenecks to sometimes fist-size butter and gaper clams, the latter named for the gaps in their shells.
Oregon’s northern beaches are especially plump with razor clams. The flatness of the strands in the north makes them a particularly attractive habitat for the species.
As a lover of steamed clams, I’ve long nursed a romantic vision of the water-to-table experience of digging up my own and sampling them. My husband and I never been clamming before, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website — where you can also get the required shellfish hunting license — proves a handy resource (www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/fishing/crabbing_clamming.asp) Also useful is “Oregon Razor Clams: The Complete Guide to Digging Razor Clams in Oregon” by William Lackner, a book of advice, recipes and a wealth of pictures, including informative close-ups of a clam’s “show” (the pencil-eraser-size hole indicating where a clam is buried in the sand).
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Armed with this knowledge — as well as galoshes, a bucket and small spade — we hit Sunset Beach near Astoria one summer morning shortly after 7 a.m. But it turns out that no amount of staring at magnified photos of sandy shows has prepared us for this day. Although there are people whom we could ask, there’s barely any chatter; with the prospect of delicious buttery razor clams in the near future, the air is thick with concentration. So we take our cues from the others and start slowly pacing, staring at the sand in search of telltale holes or doughnut-shaped indentations indicating that a clam has stuck its neck out and then retracted it.
After 20 minutes, we’ve come up empty. Clearly we’re not as well equipped as we’d thought. Clam-diggers all around us wield long sturdy shovels. One man proudly shows us his clam gun, a tubular contraption designed to burrow a few feet down and rapidly suck sand out so that you can more quickly get at the clam.
In pursuit of clams
The next morning holds greater promise. Mitch Vance, a biologist and shellfish project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has invited me on his rounds of the beaches and bays in Newport. He takes a look at my spade and says, “You can leave that behind.” Instead, he hands me a long shovel and a state-issued booklet that notes the low-tide times for every day of the year.
Just before 7 a.m., even though a light rain is coming down, South Beach and Agate Beach are filled with clammers. Chuck Bergman shows us the spoils of two hours of labor.
“Six clams in two hours. Is it worth it for you?” I ask, surprised. Bergman laughs. “It’s a sport,” says the retired deputy sheriff from Siletz. “I go hunting, too. I’ve only gotten one elk. I say I probably spent 35 years chasing it.”
On Agate Beach, I follow Vance as he periodically thumps the sand with his shovel. Sometimes, he says, clams respond to the vibrations, immediately retracting their necks and creating a show.
When he spots a show, he shovels out a two-foot hole in a flash, explaining that it’s generally best to dig your hole a few inches to the right or left of a show to minimize the chances of crushing the clam. Then he’s on his knees, feeling around, then pulling out a razor.
By this point, I’ve dug fruitlessly after spying a few shows. When I ask whether this might be because I’m digging too slowly, Vance says, nicely, “Well, maybe.” So when he lets me have the next show he sees, I’m determined to dig as fast as I can.
Vance urges me to put my hand into the hole once it’s deep enough, but I’m terrified. Razor clams, after all, are so named because of the sharp part of their shells. I go at it with a shovel instead, using my foot to dig deeper. I can tell Vance is disappointed. Then we hear a crack. I’ve hit the clam all right — and broken its shell, killing it.
As we examine the clam, I start to feel remorse. I wonder how terrified it must have been as this massive being wrenched it out of its natural habitat. “Did it die a terrible death because I broke its shell?” I ask.
“Well, not more terrible than the death it was probably going to experience anyway,” he says. He also manages not to laugh when I ask if the clam felt pain. “I’m not too up on the neuroscience of clams, I’m afraid,” he says.
Vance has one more stop: Yaquina Bay, a vast expanse of semi-firm sludge this morning. Vance instructs me to don chest-high waders. Good thing, too, as certain parts of the bay are like quicksand.
There’s up to about an inch of water in some parts of the bay, which makes clamming easier if you have a shrimp gun — like a clam gun, but smaller. Using the shrimp gun, Vance sucks out tubes of sludge before reaching in to haul out giant gapers and butter clams. His bucket is heavy within a matter of minutes.
I’m still nervous about sticking my hand into the holes I’ve dug. But I’m determined to leave with at least one — living — clam. So I plunge my hand in, cringing at the stringy worms that twine around my fingers as I grab fistfuls of mud, slinging it out of the hole. Feeling around, my fingers hit something hard. Something overtakes me; I scrape faster and faster until finally my fingers close around a hockey puck-sized shell. Hauling it up, I almost scream. Vance simply beams.
After that, I am a woman possessed. When Vance spots a show, I start madly digging, not caring even when worms get caught in my fingernails. When Vance notes that cockles are often easier to find because they’re usually closest to the surface, I frantically claw through the mud.
My haul comprises three gapers, four butter clams, six small bent-nose macomas, a mussel and one native littleneck with a beautiful purply shell.
When we get to dry land, Vance pours the contents of his bucket into mine. There are limits to the number of clams each person can harvest in a day, he explains, and it’s against the rules to share your haul with a friend — until you’re completely done. When I protest, he says: “I’m not cleaning them. You enjoy them.”
And our lesson is over.
Cooking the clams
Vance, it turns out, is wise not to bother with cleaning and cooking the clams. Our friends Victor Panichkul and Charles Price, avid clammers and writers of the food blog the Taste of Oregon, have offered to help me cook my haul in their Salem kitchen. I don’t have time to let the clams sit overnight in water to purge their grit, so Charles pours cornmeal into my bucket. “We’re feeding them,” he explains, which also causes them to expel some of the grit. When I peer in a few minutes later, some of the cornmeal has already disappeared.
Then comes the hard part. Victor starts opening the clams with a knife. Each takes considerable effort. “They’re really fighting,” he says, holding my hands as I try one. He’s right. The more I try to jam my knife in, the more it clamps its shell shut.
After having spent a whole day with these clams quietly dormant in the bucket, I’m suddenly gripped with guilt at ending their lives this way. But with a crack, the deed is done. Victor instructs me to grab another knife, cut out the clam’s stomach contents and slice the meat into pieces for clam chowder. I try to ignore the fact that the clam is still gently moving as I start slicing.
The chowder — full of bacon, garlic, potatoes and creamy whole milk — is delicious, of course. And it’s the first meal that I feel I’ve truly earned: I went on a hunt, and these were my spoils.