As soon as I realized there was a group in my school that called themselves Bay Rats, I wanted to be part of that water oriented pack that lived on the water. They could swim in the canals behind their houses after school and keep a boat of their own at the dock. It was not going to happen – my parents were not going to move to satisfy me. Growing up on the South Shore of Long Island, clamming was part of the weekend and vacation boating experience that included getting bait with a drag net to get silversides for snapper fishing, crabbing, going to Frank & Dicks for bait and coffee and eeling. I always liked clamming best of all because you could count on bringing home enough clams for a few meals and some for the neighbors. I realized later on that it was also my connection with the Bay Rats.
When I was finally tall enough to get in the water and clam with my father off East Fox Creek in Babylon, I took the adult size scratch rake he handed me, following his instructions on how to use it, and quickly noticed there were so many clams, it was faster to dig them up with my right foot, slide the clam up my left leg until I could reach it without getting my hair wet, grab it, throw it in the pail and repeat the process. It seemed far easier to me than working with the rake, probably because the rake was too big.
As a young adult working in New York City I found I had enough energy to work full time and get a part time job that would provide the funding for a boat of my own. I would invite people I worked with to come out for a day on the weekend. They would bring lunch for all of us and they would get a chance to go clamming and then go to the beach for a swim in the ocean. We’d anchor on the clamming grounds, I’d show them how to find the clams, what they felt like under foot and how to bring them up to the surface. After we got enough clams we’d sit in the cockpit with the sun drying our wet bathing suits and have our pre-lunch snack. I always brought cocktail sauce. We’d run over to Cedar Beach and have lunch and a swim in the ocean. I never had a problem finding company to go out with on the boat. When friends from school came out clamming and called me “Goldentoes” because I could get clams faster than the rakers, I thought that was the next best thing to being a Bay Rat.
In the 1970s the Great South Bay was teeming with clams and eelgrass. Clams, with their symmetrical shells, are a class of mollusk. Their hinged shells open when they are feeding and close when the clam feels threatened. Clams eat plankton, the microscopic plants and animals in the water by taking in water through one of their siphons, leaving the food in their esophagus, and pushing the now stripped seawater out through their other siphon.
Eelgrass provides food and protection to clams, other shellfish and finfish. As Long Island’s population grew in the 1970s, more people clammed commercially. The effect of more cesspool pumping, greater use of high nitrogen lawn fertilizer and overclamming caused the growth of marine algae which reduced the sunlight the eelgrass needed to grow. By the mid-1980s you had to work harder to find clams and the eelgrass all but disappeared.
Some of the species of clams found in this country are the Geoduck (pronounced gooy-duk}, the largest of the burrowing clams on the West Coast, the Manila Clam that came here by mistake from Japan, was seen as an invasive species, but became so popular that it is now highly regulated. The Atlantic Surf Clam sometimes washes up on the beach after a storm (Fire Island, Captree, Jones Beach) – they are large clams used to make clam strips and chowder. Steamers, the soft-shell clams, are found in salt marshes and along beaches at low tide from Labrador to North Carolina on the East Coast and from California to Alaska on the West Coast. The small holes you see in the sand are the air bubbles from the movement of the steamer clam trying to get away from predators.
The quahog, usually called the hard-shelled clam, is the most likely clam you’ll find in the bays and creeks of New Jersey and Long Island. It ranges in size from the smallest, the littleneck, the larger topneck and cherrystone and the largest, the chowder. The quahog’s foot can propel it a considerable distance, but it’s a slow mover, making it an easy catch. All of the recipes using clams are based on using quahogs.
If you have a boat or a friend with a boat or accessible clamming grounds reachable without a boat, you can get the few things you need to get started clamming at a bait and tackle or fisherman’s supply store. First, you need a permit or license. On the Jersey Shore at Brielle Bait & Tackle in Brielle, Gregg will show you their clam rakes, wire baskets and clam gauges. He can also sell you a $10 clamming license. Brielle Bait & Tackle is an agent for the New Jersey Division of Fish & Game. The license is good for the balance of the year you buy it. It covers Barnegat Bay and south in the summer and further north in the winter. A non-resident can pay $20 for a license that covers the same time and locations.
You can check your area on the Fish & Wildlife website, NJFishandWildlife.com.
On Long Island in the Sayville area, Elizabeth at Island Fish Net Supply has several grades of clam rakes, including larger stainless steel scratch rakes. She has wire baskets in every size from full bushel down to the peck baskets as well as heavy plastic baskets. She sells inner tubes for the half bushel and the full bushel baskets. At either store you should be able to get what you need to start clamming for under $100. If you live in Sayville which is in the Town of Islip, you would go to the Islip Town Clerk’s office with proof of residence and $5 to apply for a license.
Recreational clamming is a fun way to relax, spend time talking with friends or relatives without electronic interruption and find your next meal – all at one time. It can be more than finding clams. You might turn up an old bottle. Most commercial clammers have a collection of old beer, wine, seltzer and medicine bottles they’ve uncovered using their rakes, tongs or feet.
For those who look forward to the preparation of clam meals but are not good with knives or who are accident prone, the Clamram that incorporates a knife blade, is a foolproof way to open clams. Prestons in Greenport used to sell them but they can now be found online for $29.99. The manufacturer can bereached at 908-955-7729 or online at Mrclamram@gmail.com.
My grandmother used to make the best clam chowder in the family and, living close by, I was always there in her kitchen to watch, help, taste and learn why it was better than the others. She had been a teacher, so it was like being the only student in a cooking class. Chives and parsley were always in my grandmother’s garden and always in her chowder.
2 tbs. butter
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup celery
Half lb. bacon
1 cup parsley
2 large white potatoes
1 cup chives
1 16 oz can tomatoes
2 cups white onion
2 dozen chowder clams
1 cup carrots
Salt and pepper
1 tbs. thyme
Open the clams and use the clam juice to cook the potatoes. Grind up the clams and cut the vegetables. Cook the bacon and cut in small pieces. Use the butter and bacon fat in equal amounts to cook the celery and onion. Add the rest of the ingredients, cook for an hour and serve the next day so the flavors have a chance to mingle and the potatoes can thicken the chowder.
1 tbs. lemon juice
1 cup Heinz ketchup
1 cup Heinz chili sauce
6 tbs. Gold’s horseradish
Mix and put on clams or dip clams in sauce.
2 dozen topnecks or littlenecks
2 cups of a dry white wine (enough to cover clams)
Half cup of cut up chives and parsley
8 tbs. butter
Melt butter. Cook clams until they all open. Put the strained clam broth in a bowl. Put butter in another bowl. Dip the clams in the broth first, then the butter.