I have always been one for seafood. Even as a little child in Germany, I loved clams – though nobody else in my family did. But my parents were wonderful about letting me try everything (that is, as long as it was not decidedly dangerous). My first clams were marinated, overcooked, and came out of a jar. Today, I’d probably disdain them, knowing what “the real deal” tastes like. But back then, clams were something exotic, only to be gotten in jars or cans from overpriced delis. Now, you can get them freshly frozen in German supermarkets. But to this day, clamming is a matter for the fishing industry in my mother country, certainly not for private people.
It was my husband who introduced me to the possibility of clamming over here in Washington. First thing, we read up on the state’s most unique mollusk, the geoduck (pronounce: goo-ee-duk), a delicacy that allegedly reaches retail prices up to 30 dollars a pound, depending where you buy it. Long story short – I think digging for it is more exciting than eating it. To find something looking like the tip of an elephant’s trunk lurking out of the beach just above the waterline, then to shovel like crazy for the elusive giant that can become as old as 150 years, finally lying flat in the mud, arm stretched to the pit into the hole you have dug … you get the picture. It’s tough and dirty work for something that even as sashimi to me tastes tough and none too flavorful. I prefer the much smaller, but flavor-intense horse clams any time. They are a bit easier to dig (think elephant trunk tips covered with barnacles), a bit harder to clean (you need to skin them), and wonderful in stews, over pasta, and in chowders.
It took me a while longer to hear of razor clams. Maybe because I don’t know too many clam diggers anyhow. Maybe because the grapevine from the Pacific Coast to Lakewood is a bit longer than the one from the Sound. We started watching tutorial movies and read up on those longish clams that are maybe the only ones you shoot. Just kidding, of course. But indeed, the alternative to digging for them with your hands or a shovel is a pipe with a handle and a hole somewhere on the top. And that tool is called a clam gun. Our first go at razor clams somewhere down in Long Beach was by hand and shovel – we failed. But we were able to purchase one of those guns, and at the last of light of that December night (we weren’t seasoned as we are now and didn’t have a source of light on us), we managed to dig our first three razor clams. We carried them to our abode in triumph, and I made fritters of them. I’ll never forget the sweet, absolutely characteristic razor clam taste that night. Nor how our room smelled of the cooking still hours later.
These days, my husband and I check in November already that our clamming licenses are valid. We start checking the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, hoping that razor clam season will open soon. Some years it has been at Christmas, some at New Year’s Eve. We check tidal heights and times. We have found our favorite beaches, even favorite places to stay over the years. We don’t look for fancy as long as there is a decent clam cleaning station. If there is a pantry kitchen to boot or a tavern in walking distance to warm us up after clamming with a hot meal – all the better.
Strangely enough, the more demanding clamming conditions are, the more outstanding the memories. A couple of years ago, on a Christmas Day, we were staying at a tiny motel somewhere at the fringe of the Pacific dunes. It was a murky late afternoon, and as soon as we reached the beach with our gear, rain started battering down. Soon enough, we were wet through, as it came pelting down almost horizontally. A wave caught me by surprise on top of that and filled my rubber boots with a load of seawater. We kept digging. We wanted our limits. Once you are wet, you can’t get wetter, right?!
What do I remember of that night? The beauty of countless people digging in the dark, carrying lanterns and wearing headlights – like fireflies on an icy, wet December night. The friendly chat with other clam diggers at the sheltered cleaning station, swapping cleaning tricks and recipes. How invitingly the lonely tavern was beckoning from down the road. How we found the last two seats at the bar and enjoyed the warmth and dry while warming up on a glass of red and waiting for our hot food.
To me, actual clamming is only part of an amazing and holistic adventure. I would never have experienced it in my German life. And I relish its entirety from the first plan in November to the last clam in the freezer.