Happy as an Eastham Clam

EASTHAM — Patience, perseverance and 25 dollars. In Eastham, if you have all three, you can buy a year of serenity, outdoor exercise and sustainably harvested seafood: you can scratch for clams.

Always intruder here, I’ve been curious since childhood. I used to revel in trolling the mudflats off Campground Beach, teasing the beaks that tickled the ankles of burrowing knives as you stomped beside the telltale siphon holes that riddled the sandbars. I dug furiously to catch them, ending up with a few unfortunates in my plastic beach bucket alongside a hermit crab or two.

Walking from First Encounter Beach to the mouth of Bee’s River, the writer scans the apartments under an immense sky. (Photo by Tara Chhabra)

“These are no clams for us to eat,” my grandmother – a meat and potato Irishwoman – would say, releasing my loot before dragging me to Arnold’s for fried strips.

I didn’t discover clams until I was sitting in the bar at the Chatham Squire. There I happily grazed on mounds of sweet and savory Monomoy steamers. Oh, the incomparable joy of sipping those first whole butter bellies and Cape Town beers of the summer!

The crush on the quahog, my love for Mercenaria mercenaria, came later. It started when I was taking walks on the beach, with a reflection of the finest periwinkle thrown by the sea and clearly visible amid the falling earth-toned rocks and rubble of the ocean. I picked it up, this piece of semi-polished purple, a hard, sand-smoothed clam fragment. Now I collect the pieces like so many found quarters, encasing them in a large glass apothecary jar, but not before taking care to wash, dry and massage each piece with mineral oil, to polish it in a luminous lavender.

Scouring the mudflats for fresh quahogs has been my most recent obsession, beginning soon after I joined the ranks of Eastham owners in 2019. Included with my tax bill this spring was something of an invitation: I could easily acquire an annual shellfish permit with my resident beach sticker. Now, receiving this request in the city mail is the happiest harbinger of spring.

A clam in the hand. (Photo by Tara Chhabra)

This first season, I was eager to clam but I had no idea. I spent hours researching rakes, gear, and types and habitats of clams. It turns out that what you claim and where you claim matters when it comes to rakes. Do I need the portable one with the imposing curved teeth as long as my forearm? How about the long-handled one with the wide-mouth basket? Or the mixture of garden hoe and giant eagle claw?

I scoured hardware and marine supply stores, even antique and consignment stores, before finding my simple, sturdy Cape-made Ribb Rake at Blackbeard’s Bait & Tackle. My sights were on anything I could find on the mud flats at “my” beach at First Encounter, I told the shopkeeper.

“You’re going to attack the quahogs,” he said. “They are close to the surface. Try that.” He handed me a simple eight-pronged steel head with a small basket resembling a hollowed-out turtle shell, capping a big five-foot northern ash handle.

It was at the beginning of July that I made my first foray. I head to First Encounter an hour after low tide. It is late in the day, but the sun is still high and warm. Bathers are scattered on the sandbars with their blankets and books, and children roam the tidal pools in search of snails and crabs. The sky is wide here, and even on the busiest day at the beach, you can be both alone and comfortably in the company of others.

By dragging the flats, the writer listens for the “ping!” rake hitting a clam. (Photo by Tara Chhabra)

I step over the people on the upper beach and head towards the expanse of fudge-colored apartments. I walk diagonally toward the shore, heading south and west. Strolling the sandbars at low tide ahead of others on the beach is like walking on a stage. I know that no one is watching, that everyone is only engaged in their own groups of family and friends; nevertheless, I feel compelled to walk as if I know what I am doing and where I am going. I do not know.

Oysters are farmed between First Encounter and Boat Meadow, so I imagine the sandbars near the mouth of Bee’s River and near these aquaculture grants might be a good place to scratch. I scan the surface of the sand – it’s not too gritty, relatively free of beach litter and seagull guano – then I turn to admire the view: Rock Harbor, Boat Meadow, First Encounter and the other beaches of Eastham to the north; Lieutenant and Great Islands beyond these; the grain of Pilgrim Monument on the distant horizon, the open bay, the faint speck of the mainland and the wind turbines in the far west. Yes, if I was a clam, this is a place I would gladly call home.

I lower my wire basket to the ground and plunge my clam rake into the mud. I back up slowly, dragging the rake. If I get the “ping!” teeth hitting a buried shallow quahog, I scrape in a patch around the first find. Because where one lies, the others are sure to be toasty warm. (Experienced clams may offer better ways to find quahogs, but my pick-and-dive method hasn’t failed me yet.)

The first clam is the size of my fist. As it is the second, and the third. In no time, I have eight large shellfish in my basket. I worked on an area twice the size of my small seasonal cabin, raking in about 500 square feet. It’s time to move on to the next sandbar. I have a goal of a dozen clams. I plan to make a chowder.

Getting home with enough clams in the chowder bucket is the goal. (Photo by Tara Chhabra)

The next pass is slower to yield results. I scratch in clean squares. First from left to right, then from top to bottom. A hatched quilt pattern. I carve black and purple in the brown mud, unearthing ancient tourmalines, feldspars and garnets and the occasional disturbed crab. I’m about to settle for 10 clams instead of a dozen when my last four are found. I am enough. And I hurt, in the best possible way.

I clam regularly now but have never harvested the weekly 10 pint limit. I am satisfied with the dozen that an hour’s work usually brings. My technique remains unchanged, although some days I roll more towards straight, symmetrical stripe patterns, while other times I wax artistically, carving huge letters in the sand for planes to read by. PEACE.

Quahogging on the mudflats of Eastham is a meditative way to spend a few hours outdoors any time of the year in the presence of all sorts of curious migrating shorebirds and the occasional curious tourist.

Before long, you’ll have covered miles, if only in circles or methodical rows, and mostly backwards. You will have seen clouds rolling in from the western horizon or watched a sun the syrupy gold of sticky peaches slip into the abyss. You will have witnessed swallows whisper overhead, silent except for the wind from their wings, or a tern with a silvery dinner outmaneuvering a pair of hungry gulls four times its size. You will have cleared your mind of worry and ongoing thought and you will have released stress from your body to the earth.

On some days the writer scratches in straight symmetrical patterns; on others, she carves huge letters in the sand. (Photo by Tara Chhab)

There are dozens of ways to cook quahogs. I rub and steam mine, then chop them to make chowder. In his 1949 travel diary, Cape Cod Summer, Eleanor Early includes a cheeky chowder recipe that has been my favorite:

A good clam chowder is made much like fish chowder. You start with salt pork, and to make it even better, you end with cream. There’s a disgusting concoction with tomatoes called Manhattan clam chowder that’s actually eaten in Connecticut and New York. But no one on Cape Cod would touch it.

I savor the dicing of potatoes and onions, the trying of salt pork, the slow simmer of cream, clams and crackers. A jar of this feeds my husband, Jon, and me for days.

clam chowder

“A good clam chowder is made one way and that’s it,” wrote Eleanor Early. Out of nostalgia, I like to turn to his recipe. But I admit I’ve changed it up a bit over the years, shortening the milk and cream with half and half, supplementing my fresh clams with chopped clams and extra juice, if I run out, and adding salt pork, for its salty chew.

“You start with salt pork… and end with cream,” according to Eleanor Early’s 1949 chowder recipe. (Photo by Teresa Parker)

A dozen large clams
A two-inch cube of salt pork
3 small onions, chopped
4 potatoes, cut into small cubes
4 tbsp. Butter
4 tbsp. plain flour
1 liter half and half
Salt and pepper
common crackers

(Also: I keep a 6.5-ounce can of Snow’s chopped clams and an 8-ounce bottle of their clam juice on hand for plain supplementing if needed when making chowder.)

Steam the clams in a saucepan with a tight fitting lid and using only a small amount of water. About a half inch to the bottom of the jar will do, as the clams will release a lot of alcohol. When cool enough to handle, remove the meats and mince them (discarding the brownish-green stomachs).

Reserve the juices by pouring them through cheesecloth (and the lees) so they are not grainy.

Slice the salt pork and fry it (“try it,” Eleanor says, as if it were whale blubber) in your soup pot. When it’s crisp and crisp, remove it, but leave the fat in the pan. Add chopped onions and sauté in fat until golden brown. Add the cubed potatoes and two cups of water and simmer until the potatoes are “pretty soft and not squashy”.

Make a roux separately by melting the butter, stirring in the flour for a few minutes to cook its raw flavor. Then add half and half to thicken and stir this white sauce in the pot. Add a little salt pork, defatted. Add canned clams now, if desired.

Spread the split joint crackers on top of the chowder, cover and simmer very gently.

Before serving, dilute with reserved (or bottled) clam juice if the chowder is too thick. Taste for seasoning. Eleanor adds salt and pepper; I don’t find it needs it, given how salty the pork and clams are.

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