The west sand squished between my toes.
"Dig deeper. James," my clam-diggin' new friend, instructed. "They're down there."
We were just outside of Boston searching for lunch on the beach. Actually, we were in the shallows with the Atlantic biting cold on my ankles. Summer had fled and autumn, although named on the calendar, seemed to be skipped over for the harsher temperatures of winter.
Yet, there I was, in shorts and a sweater standing in the surf, shivering and wondering just what was I thinking. Like Lucy Ricardo squishing grapes for wine with her feet, James was teaching me to dig for clams with my toes.
With no scratch rake or tongs, you can always find clams just by feeling. He paused and wiggled his left leg. He rolled his white collared shirtsleeve up to the elbow, bent down, and stuck his hand into the water. He pulled a gray half-mooned bivalve with brown rings wrapping around its surface from the sand. His rough work-worn hands with dirt under the nails showed stitches from past battles with shells. "Here's one."
"How did you do that?" I wiggled my feet around, searching for my own lunch.
James laughed and then coughed. Years of cold New England winters and a life on the sea had graveled his voice and weathered his hands but hadn't thawed his love of treading for clams. Every time I'd visited the area, I'd asked around for someone to take me digging and finally had been introduced to James, a first mate on a swordfish boat in Gloucester. He'd agreed to show me how to dig, old-school-style, with just our senses.
I'd picked up my shellfish permit that morning and was eager to gather enough mollusks to make chowder that afternoon. I thought it would be easier, and kicked myself for being so eager to do this without the modern-day tools of a rake or shovel.
When the tide rolls out, look for small round holes in the sand. That's where they'll be. James chucked his clam into the steel bucket at the water's edge.I groped through the muck, scrunching my toes as directed but came up empty footed.
At this rate, I better stop at The Clam Box on the way home if I'm going to have clams for lunch.Not to worry. They'll be clams for chowda. His thick Boston accent held confidence enough for both of us.
The clams we searched for were a sweet, saltwater, soft-shelled clam that have been dug on these shores for hundreds of years. They are also called long-necks for the rubbery siphon that protrudes from their shell, which are thinner than other varieties such as the little-neck or cherry stone.
Restaurants for miles around specialize in fried clam strips and stuffed clams. They are served raw, steamed, and in clam pastas. The uses are endless. People of the area were known not to even leave the beach after collecting the local delicacy. They'd dig a deep hole in the sand and build a fire of driftwood. Seaweed collected from the shoreline would be strewn on top of the hot rocks with their clams tucked inside. All of this was covered with a tarp and a layer of sand and left to roast for hours, steaming the clams open and creating a New England clam bake.
James reached down and plucked another from the sand and pulled a multi-tool from his pocket. He snapped the knife attachment open and dug it between the two halves of the clam's shell, popping the hinge and opening it like a book. Using the tip of the knife, he scraped a lingering fragment of shell from the liquid around the muscle and handed it to me. "Here. Try one."
I tipped my head back, sucking the nugget from its home. Salty brine slipped down my throat as I bit into the chewy, rich clam. I swallowed and smiled. "Delicious."
James just nodded.
After an hour, my lips were blue, my teeth chattered, and my flesh was covered in goose bumps. I looked into my bucket and its measly half-dozen clams. "Just how many of these things do I need for a bowl of soup?"
With a wink and a gruff laugh he slapped his knee and said, "How about you stick to cooking, and I'll do the diggin'?"
That's all the encouragement I needed to scamper back up the beach, wrap a wool blanket around my frozen toes and observe the digging instead of participating in the oceanfront foraging.