Chasing these buried treasures on 53 miles of flat, sandy Washington coast has helped shape our identity and psyche.
I FIRST WENT razor clamming out of the most casual curiosity. I was a transplant from the East to the West Coast. I’d barely heard of razor clams, but I had a clam shovel I’d purchased at a garage sale, thinking it might be useful in the garden.
I somehow managed to get myself to the beach at the right time. I can’t remember much about the one and only clam I caught. I was too spent from battling surf and sand. The clam was much deeper in the beach than I had expected, and it moved fast. Subsequently, I heard people say, “These are clams you have to chase! It’s sport!” But nobody had told me that.
To find myself on a miles-long beach, under an endless sky, chasing a clam buried in the sand, was quite novel. After hours of fruitless effort, I found the one clam only after extending my arm much farther into the sand than I thought sensible; I was up to my shoulder in the beach and felt like I was reaching in to turn around a breached calf. But then my fingertips brushed the tip of something hard. I pinched and gave a pull. The object, to my surprise, pulled downward. I pinched harder and pulled upward. The clam strained and pulled the other way. It was a battle of strength and wills that I only slowly won.
Every year, tens of thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest go razor clamming, an iconic (and often freezing) “beach-to-table” experience. In his book “Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest,” David Berger was inspired to dig deeper, illuminating the science and history behind the perplexing rules that seek to keep the razor-clam population healthy and the biomechanics that make these delicious bivalves so challenging to catch — while also joyfully taking part in what, for many clammers, is “personal therapy, family vacation and the quintessential Northwest experience all rolled into one.” Berger brings to light the long history of razor clamming as a subsistence, commercial and recreational activity and shows the ways it has helped shape the identity and the psyche of the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and there are recipes.
“Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest” by David Berger
Copyright © 2017 by David Berger.
This excerpt is published courtesy University of Washington Press.
I wasn’t alone that first dig, one arm deep in the beach, pinching and pulling for all I was worth. As I discovered, many people love to dig and eat the Pacific razor clam. The whole tribe of society gathers to dig its allotted 15 clams per person. Old-timers. Hipsters. Families with dogs. Groups of twentysomethings. Sportsmen in camouflage clothes. Mothers pushing strollers. Busy urbanites and coastal denizens. Even couples on dates, sweetly murmuring.
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When I arrived at the beach, I saw the entire arc of humanity lined up in front of the surf. I was stunned. On a good clamming weekend, people flood from every corner of Washington, Oregon and points beyond. It is really the quintessential Northwest activity. Salmon, move over. A mass of humanity comes to the shore to chase, catch, clean, cook and consume this seafood delicacy. There is joy in the abundance. It’s a family activity, and the lore is often handed down generationally. It’s not uncommon to see 80-year-olds, male and female, out on the beach pursuing an activity they learned as kids. No child forgets the wonder of being on the beach, digging for clams with a throng of gyrating humanity, and no octogenarian forgets, either.
ONE SEASON, AFTER a dig, cleaning a limit at an outdoor station, I fell in love with razor clams. I became infatuated; they were all I could think of, day and night. It was a one-sided love affair, what with me mooning around and the razor clams going about their business as if I didn’t exist. I explained to a friend that I had fallen in love, had held a clam my hand and felt an ache in my heart, and she looked at me strangely.
Eventually I sought a more formal introduction to Siliqua patula, or the Pacific razor clam, as it’s commonly known. It dwells only on the western edge of the North American continent, from northern California to southern Alaska, but most especially on the 53 miles of flat, sandy beaches that make up Washington’s southern coast, prime habitat for razor clams. Here, they are plentiful in numbers hard to imagine.
The shell is an elegant affair that grows to about 6¼ inches long at full maturity. It fits in your hand just so, elongated and oblong, the exterior shiny and in shades of golden brown, olive and tan. It’s a streamlined, wily creature designed to move up and down in the sand column, like a little elevator. The clam’s digging foot extends from the bottom, and its siphon — or neck, as it’s commonly called — extends from the top. The neck, the only part of the clam to poke above the sand, is tough as tire rubber.
Most of the time, the neck and the powerful foot protrude and form a distinctive profile, though the foot can retract all the way into the shell, and the neck can retract most of the way, like a turtle. The shell, however, is always somewhat agape, and the animal is visible all around except at the hinge. The clam doesn’t so much inhabit the shell as wear it like fashionable light armor.
And then there are the missing parts. No teeth or barbs, no poison or claws. No weapons. Only a strong foot for fleeing. The clam is a pacifist.
Sept. 7: 7 p.m., University Book Store, Seattle
Sept. 13: 7:30 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Olympia Timberland Library
Sept. 19: 7 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Wheelock Library, Tacoma
Sept. 21: 7 p.m., Eagle Harbor Books, Bainbridge Island
Sept. 23: 11 a.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Aberdeen Timberland Library
Sept. 23: 2 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Westport Timberland Library
Sept. 30: 2 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, Ilwaco
Oct. 5: 7 p.m., Ravenna Third Place Books, Seattle
Oct. 25: 7 p.m., Village Books, Bellingham
Nov. 4: 1 p.m., Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Seattle Audubon, Seward Park Audubon Center
Both the Pacific razor clam and the Atlantic razor clam (Ensis directus) found on the East Coast are commonly called razor clams, but the two are different genera and have a different shape. The shell of Ensis directus really does look like an old-fashioned straightedge razor, narrow and thin, or a jackknife, per its other common name, Atlantic jackknife clam. The Pacific razor clam is bigger and heavier, with an oval silhouette. Whether its common name derives from a general resemblance to many other clams around the world that are commonly called razor clams, or from the thin edges that can gash unwary fingers, is ambiguous. But certainly diggers need to be careful, as many a neophyte with a scar can attest. The scientific name derives from the clam’s appearance — siliqua being Latin for “pod,” and patula for “open” or “gaping.”
OVER TIME, I started razor clamming more frequently and began daydreaming about the activity. I imagined a spring opener in morning sun, and an evening dig with folks looking for clam shows by lantern and headlamp. I found it reassuring to recall this world existing seemingly out of time and place. When I saw shells around the house from previous digs, I remembered that the surf was steadily roaring at the coast, and scores of razor clams were living out their lives in a great city in the sand, even as I was living out mine.
Dan’s Low-Fat Razor Clam Chowder
Dan Ayres, Washington’s coastal shellfish manager, provided this recipe, which eschews salt pork, bacon, butter and cream for a low-fat, comparatively thin chowder. The use of buttermilk provides a distinct tang. Ayres says his motto with razor-clam chowder is the more clams the better, so don’t be afraid to add more than are called for in this recipe.
Makes 6 servings
2 cups diced leeks or onions
2 cups Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ¼- to ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
4 cups canned razor clams, chopped, with their liquid, or 10 medium-sized fresh or previously frozen razor clams, chopped
4 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 cups chicken broth, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon Tabasco, sriracha or other hot sauce, plus more as needed (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. In a large, cast-iron Dutch oven or similar-sized soup pot, saute the leeks (or onions) and potatoes in oil over medium heat until they just begin to brown, 4 minutes or longer.
2. Add the garlic, and saute another minute, until translucent.
3. If you are using canned clams, add them to the sauteed ingredients, along with the buttermilk, evaporated milk, chicken broth and Tabasco. If you are using fresh or previously frozen clams, add them to the sauteed ingredients and saute for another 3 to 5 minutes, then add the buttermilk, evaporated milk, chicken broth and Tabasco.
4. Stir well, and cook just below a simmer (do not boil) for a few more minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.
Their city is invisible, of course, and when you arrive at the beach to take stock, only an expanse of ocean and sky is to be seen, a vast diorama of light. An untold number of razor clams, perhaps the best eating clam in the world, lies buried in the sand, each precisely hunched over, hinge facing toward the sea.
But a casual visitor would not suspect there’s even a one. And when visitors stumble on a horde of people tearing up the beach like mad gophers, they are amazed. In fact, a significant percentage of Washington’s population has joined the razor-clamming ranks over the decades, especially as the country became more mobile after World War II, and left gas rationing and bad memories behind. Some years have seen nearly 1 million digger trips — that is, a million discrete trips to the ocean shore to hunt for razor clams.
Brock’s Razor Clams with Black Bean Sauce
Brock Johnson is head chef at the Dahlia Lounge, one of restaurateur Tom Douglas’ signature establishments in Seattle. Johnson occasionally razor-clammed as a youth in Oregon, but the activity was a much bigger deal for his grandfather, who grew up on the Shoalwater Reservation, and for his dad. Johnson came to razor clams through the culinary world, not via his tribal heritage. Chefs these days are expected to “walk the walk,” he says, and participate in every aspect of food culture. “They forage for mushrooms, catch fish — especially here in the Northwest — and get hands dirty gardening.” And go razor clamming, naturally enough. This recipe calls for asparagus, but Johnson suggests using whatever vegetable is in season: asparagus in spring, green beans in summer and broccoli in fall.
Makes 4 servings
For the black bean stir-fry sauce:
½ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon sambal (or other hot sauce)
1½ tablespoons fermented black beans, chopped
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
For the razor clams:
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced scallions
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
4 cups shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 pound asparagus, cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cups razor-clam meat, cut into ½-inch-wide strips across the length of the clam (if there is lots of spawn, scrape some out)
Steamed rice, for serving
1. For the stir-fry sauce, mix the soy sauce, sugar, chicken stock, sambal, fermented black beans, cornstarch and sesame oil. Set aside.
2. Place a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the oil and then the ginger, garlic and scallions. Cook for 30 seconds.
3. Add the onion and mushrooms, and stir-fry for 1 minute.
4. Add the asparagus, and continue to cook until the vegetables are lightly softened, about 30 seconds longer.
5. Add the black bean stir-fry sauce, and bring to a boil to thicken the sauce.
6. Add the clams, and stir to combine. The clams cook quickly and will pretty much poach in the sauce right when they are stirred in.
7. Serve with rice.
People discover the activity, taste the primal joy of abundance, and invite family and friends on a regular basis. During a recent season, people harvested more than 6 million clams, enough to pile 100 clams on every seat in the Seahawks’ football stadium. It’s not too unusual for folks to display razor-clam shells at home or in the garage as trophies, or to read in a coastal newspaper obituary, “So-and-so loved to razor clam and took pride in always getting a limit.”
THE PHENOMENON THRIVES despite the proliferation of video games and computer screens, cable television and professional sports. A turn away from nature? Not to the men, women and children who flock to the coast to clam. Electronics die a quick death next to sand and saltwater, as do quotidian worries. Sea, sky and razor-clam shows leave little room for other thoughts. The beach is wild, the undertaking elemental. It’s challenging, and yet most who try meet with success. Razor clamming is the people’s activity, an often-ritualized experience enjoyed over and over. You dig with shovel and tube, and hands. You perch on the coastal rim where sand, sky, sun and water edge together. You brave the elements and accompany the clams on the rough journey from this special place to foodstuff. You know where your dinner comes from; you harvested it just a few hours before.
Razor clamming has evolved — in the early years, clams were commercially canned, for example, and the resource has had its ups and downs — but it’s always been shovel and sand, digger and quarry, one clam at a time, mano a mano. Razor clamming is part of the psychic bedrock, and its hold on the region is strong. If the season gets curtailed or canceled, as occasionally happens due to lack of clams or health advisories, people are perturbed. You might as well cancel Christmas! And when there are many clamming days, and the clams are numerous and good-sized, people are happy.
Of course, abundance isn’t the only consideration shaping the experience. State authorities declare when and how many clams can be caught, and those regulations influence the razor-clamming phenomenon. Having a dig around New Year’s Day in January practically created a new holiday for aficionados. Weather is a defining issue when you are going to be in it, and summer digs have been off-limits since 1973, pushing razor clammers into less-hospitable seasons for the sake of protecting baby clams and summer tourists, and enhancing year-round coastal visitation.
BUT, SEASONS AND regulations aside, the bar to entry to razor clamming is low. You use a shovel — preferably with a narrow blade — or a tube, a simple cylinder made of metal or plastic with a handle that creates a partial vacuum to lift up a column of sand. Most people think the tube is easier than the shovel, though it can take time to gain finesse with whatever tool you are using. A bucket or net for holding the catch completes the gear. My wife’s uncle used a bleach bottle with a window cut out, which he tied to his belt with a shoelace. When he became too infirm to razor clam, he passed it along to us.
Once you have your gear — shovel or tube, and bucket or net — you have to go to the ocean at low tide. That’s when the receding water reveals the intertidal sand in which the clams live. There are two low and two high tides every day on the Northwest coast, six hours apart. On the East Coast, each tide is about the same elevation, but on the West Coast, one high tide is higher than the other, and one low tide is lower. Those lower low tides are when clammers flock to the beach.
Once you make it to a low tide, you have to ignore the expansive sky, the sandy beaches that go on for miles and the Pacific Ocean extending flat in front of you all the way to the horizon. You have to concentrate instead on the grains of sand right at your feet. You study one little section of sand, then another. Everything else drops away. You see the ripples of sand left by receding water, and perhaps a piece of sand dollar. And then you spot a hole, or a dimple, or some other show. You dig quickly, lest the surf wash the show from sight, and then lest the clam escape into the depths of the sand. When done with the day’s tide, if you’re fortunate, your net bulges with golden-brown clams. Then it’s on to cleaning them.
Perhaps you’ll wonder how the clams manage to burrow about as fast as you can dig for them, and why sometimes you find so many and other times none at all. Over the decades, I have had many such questions about these creatures that are so different from us humans and other mammals. My misconceptions were many. But I knew the razor-clam phenomenon was as real as the coastal rain and pointy evergreen trees, attracting a multitude who love being on the beach, digging in the briny ocean wetness, securing a foodstuff from the wild, feeling the glory of abundance and holding aloft each clam dug from the sand as if it were the Golden Fleece itself.