Clam Digging

I never cook clams in Martha's Vineyard that I don't think about the first time our family went clam digging...

We waited all day for the rain to stop and it was late afternoon when the sun broke through. We gathered rakes and buckets and water shoes. The water continued its drip off the roof and sprawling oaks as we piled into Audrey, our ancient station wagon, a rusty retiree from the carpool line living out her days on the island. Filled with the expansive flush of clean clear air and the open country road, she carried us south to Menemsha Pond. We watched for the narrow sandy lane that cut through the dense underbrush off State Road, bumping along across puddled ruts and the exposed rock bed.

We parked on the meadow grass and climbed the few steps to the house on the bluff.  It had been built there in the sixties, a modern, efficient summer home with multilevel breezeways and bedrooms not much larger than cabinets. It was home to an artist, a poet and their extended family of writers and musicians. The house itself was a collage of visually interesting and inviting spaces all resting on a beautiful rolling bluff, one of many that encircles the pond and the charming fishing port of Menemsha on the western side of Martha’s Vineyard. The view of the water and green-shrubbed hills was both breathtaking and serene. Our friends welcomed us and adding extra buckets and rakes to our collection, showed us the pathway to the pond’s edge. We walked carefully among the debris of rock and shells littering the sandy shore into the cool brackish water, our private paradise of clam beds. We began our hunt.

There are many methods to find the succulent clams of the Cape Cod coast.  For sure, searching at low tide is an essential to most places, especially if you are using the rake method.  This requires a special focus on the feel at the end of the clam rake as your gently but firmly dig into the bottom of the pond, all the while sorting the sensations of “clunk, scratch and scrape” that tell you when have found your prey. With practice, the basket in the back of the rake yields a “keeper”-of a size measured by an official shellfish ringA special clam rake is not a necessity. Any sturdy, short-pronged rake can locate and dig up the clams, but the baskets attached to the rear of the clam rake are ideal for filtering the silt at the bottom and leaving only clams and an occasional stone in the basket.

Each of us worked on perfecting our methods and soon the buckets, planted near the shoreline started to fill with giant quahogs and cherrystones. There was an occasional startled screech as someone encountered the pinchers of a darting crab. But it was our daughter, Katherine, who led the charge.  Using nothing but her toes and hands to dig, and submersing herself so that her long brown hair flowed behind her like a mermaid or Aphrodite herself, she single-handedly gathered dozens of the illusive creatures, more than the rest of us combined.  As she worked with a smile and solitary concentration, the group kept edging closer to where she was hunting, hoping some of her uncanny luck and method would work for us, too.  “You have to become ‘one’ with the clams,” she explained.  

 We spent at least an hour out in the pond and watched as the sun sunk lower in the sky and cast a shimmering golden light across the meadow and gently rippling water.  We grew quieter, lost in our concentration on what lay beneath the surface, going deeper into the water and ourselves. Without a word we all began to wade to shore.  Limp, like a piece of seaweed that had been gently pushed ashore, our sodden bodies began to chill in the late afternoon air. It was then we heard the violin, a classical Bach solo accompanying us as we topped the hill.  Already transported by our immersion in the tidal rhythm to a place of deep peace, the sound was the last door to total enchantment. We walked through it and followed its call back to the house. There, bundling ourselves in sweatshirts and fluffy towels we shared hot cocoa and red wine and listened to the music until the sun went down.

Our appetites stirring, we headed home on the darkening road. Slowing emerging from our sweetly altered state, we organized ourselves into teams of clam shuckers and steamers and sauce makers and table setters, all the while sampling the glistening raw clams as appetizers.    

Finally, the feast of clams in fresh tomato sauce and basil plucked from the garden served over linguine was carried to the table on a huge platter. Another glass was raised to our good fortune, to being one with the clams and the sea.

See link for recipe.

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