Wham, bam, thank you clam
by Annie Bernstein
Every year, when my large family manages to make it to the Vineyard at the same time, we consult the tide charts. At the first sign of low tide, we pile into the car with clam rakes, buckets, water shoes and the family dogs, and make our way down State Road. Unloading our gear near the pond, we all wade in, allowing our bodies to steadily adjust to the cold.
Food is the organizing principle in my family. For my mother’s 60th birthday, I compiled a book of recipes gathered from our family and friends— some brand new, others classics that had long-needed to be written down. One of the essentials from the collection is my cousin Jimmy’s take on a classic spaghetti with clam sauce, and it’s the same one we prepare every summer after our group clamming expeditions.
I can’t make any claims to being a master clammer, but I do feel like, in his camp-counselor way, Jimmy has taught me the practice of figuring it out as I go along. Personal preference serves as the guide—I clam barefoot, using my toes as miniature rakes, reaching for the distinct smoothness of a clamshell hiding beneath the sludge. For those who use a rake, there’s a recognizable, high-pitched, nails-on-a-chalkboard sound that’s distinct from the sound the rake makes when it’s come upon a rock.
It’s not all glamorous, of course. The smell of sludge doesn’t come off easily, and sometimes we come out of the pond only to realize that we’ve all been stung by jellyfish. Creatures below the cloudy water don’t hesitate to remind you of their existence with their pinchers. (When you’re the visitor and they’re the locals, it’s necessary to tread lightly.)
It’s always hard to leave, but when we’re ready, we round up the dogs wandering in the tall grass and pile back into the car. Back at the house with our buckets of trophies, we wash ourselves off in the outdoor shower and count our successes.
Jimmy has always magically shucked a plateful of clams by the time the rest of us have woken up from our long afternoon naps. The veteran clammers of the family guide the newcomers in the art of slurping these clams down raw while we wait for the main course. The smell of garlic fills the air.
Once seated, we twirl the spaghetti with big spoons. We toast, in praise of the chef and in celebration of our collective efforts. We sop up those last bits of sauce with chunks of bread.
From our lagoon dawn, to the obsessive hunt through the gunky sludge, to the cold reward of a briny plate, the clams still bring us together summer after salty summer.