Having recently finished a post on blueberry picking with my grandmother, it got me a bit nostalgic. It brought back memories of another food foraging experience from my youth. My dad’s side of the family spent many summer days along the Maine coast clam digging for quahogs or hen clams.
I was lucky growing up. My mother’s parents lived next to the ocean so I spent my summers at the beach. Their home became a meeting spot for family members some of whom came for sunbathing and for others who came for clam digging.
While I was mainly a spectator, I did try clam digging a little bit as I got older, but I didn’t have the same knack for it as my Grandmother, Dad and Uncle. They were talented and could harvest clams like crazy. I was lucky if I walked away with more than ten. I guess those clam digging genes skip a generation.
How do you dig clams? Here is a quick explanation of how it was done in my family:
- You go out at low tide and find a nice, flat area. To get to the quahogs or hen clams, you’re actually in the water and pretty far out. These aren’t the small clams commonly referred to as steamers that you get closer to shore.
- Using a pitchfork like implement, keep jabbing it into the ground, working in a grid-like pattern.
- You keep plunging the pitch fork into the ground until it hits something that feels like a rock. This is not a rock, you have struck a clam.
- Now using your pitchfork, you dig underneath the clam to pull it out of the sand.
- Once you have the clam, you throw it into your basket. For my family, the basket was held up by an inflatable tube around the top to keep it afloat.
Clam Digging, my personal experiences have shown me, is an art. It is one that my Dad and his family have mastered. While I could always find a few clams, I usually ended up breaking the shell or I wasn’t quick enough to grab them before they got away. They move pretty fast when they’re poked with a pitch fork. My Dad will disagree with this point later in this post, but that is because he is extremely good at clam digging. He’ll also tell you that hammering in a nail is simple. I would disagree with him on that as well.
My grandmother would usually take over the shucking and grinding of the clams. These were large quahogs or hen clams that we were pulling up in our clam digging expeditions. They were about 4-8″ across and required a little prep before eating. The muscles were large enough that we use to include them in recipes almost like scallops and then the rest of the clam was ground up to be used in clam fritters, clam cakes, clam chowders and other clam creations.
Since my skills with clam digging are questionable, I decided to go straight to the professional for input on this post. Below is an interview with my Dad where he shares his insight and extensive experiences in the art of clam digging. I’ve included some comments with a few of his answers. Those comments are highlighted in blue.
Who was the first person to go clam digging in your family? Was it something you grew up doing?
My Uncle Jerry would go at the lowest tides on sandy beaches and dig for quahogs, or as we refer to them, hen clams. At first, he dug them for fish bait as he was an avid striped bass fisherman and he claimed that it was the best bait.
Later, he realized that they were nothing but huge steamers. So, he started shucking them and making clam chowders, clam cakes, clam fritters, etc. He would walk on the wet sand and poke the ground with the butt end of his shovel until he spotted a small water-spout and then he would dig them up.
After a while, he noticed some residents were using pitch forks and just sticking them in the sand until they hit what felt like a rock. They seemed to be doing better than him. So, he started using what they call a “dung” fork because it had two extra tines increasing the coverage.
When we were about five or six, my mom started going clam digging with him. Soon enough my brother and I were going too. In our 20s and 30s, we could go out on a “good” tide and wade out over our waist where the larger clams were. We could dig two or three bushels on a tide. We would clean them and then grind them up to freeze so mom could use them in the winter.
What tips you would give someone who wanted to try clam digging for the first time?
Today, you aren’t allowed to dig the clams. For years, the red tide would close the digging. [According to the NOAA website, “A ‘red tide’ is a common term used for a harmful algal bloom.”] Now the red tide does not occur as often as it used to, but the state claims that the ocean has pollution levels to high to allow harvesting for health reasons.
[This impacts the area that my family has historically gone clam digging and not necessarily the whole state. Although the list online seems pretty extensive, so it feels like the whole state. Where we used to go clam digging is Area No. 10 according to the Department of Marine Resources website. I wish we were Area No. 51, then we could blame the aliens.]
If the beaches ever clear up, you just need to get a hay-fork or any wiry tine fork and poke in the sand until you hit a had object and dig it up. They are only 2-4 inches deep and contrary to what people say, they don’t move away fast enough to get away. [Dad, I would respectfully disagree but I’m probably just a much less talented clam digger.]
To shuck them, you just stick a knife between the two shells and slit the muscle on each end. After that, you can pull it apart, scrape all the meat out, clean and remove what we call the slimy stuff. The slimy stuff is a silky film that covers the clam. Some people keep it, but it doesn’t feel firm like the clam, so I don’t. Then you remove the belly contents, rinse off and dice or grind the meat. They’re prefect for you to start your chowda. Those muscles, previously mentioned, when pan-fried or baked in the oven taste just like scallops.
Are there any special techniques to finding the clams?
If you find a large sandy tide-water flat that is relatively firm, there will be clams there. They might be hen clams, quahogs, steam clams or mahogany quahogs which have a strong iodine flavor. [That last one doesn’t sound tasty.] Also, I think cherry stone clams are found in a more muddy area.
What was the most successful day you ever had clam digging?
The best day we ever had was when we went out for two low tides in the same day. One was at 6:00 am and the other at 6:00 pm. The tides were extremely low (minus 2.6 foot tides) so we could go out quite a ways and there was no wind. It was also sometime in June before the tourists started to arrive. On those two tides, my brother and I harvested a lot of clams. We spent two days cleaning, grinding, bagging and freezing. Memere Rose did most of the cleaning!
Did Memere always shuck the clams? (I seem to remember she was always the one doing this.)
If we only had a few, Memere would do everything. If we had a lot, my brother and I would shuck them all, throw the meat into a five gallon pail, and help her clean. She did almost all of the grinding and packing.
What incident stands out the most from your time clam digging?
My brother and I went digging during the month of October one time. We got very few clams and nearly froze as water was washing into our waders. We decided that day that August was our limit. [Average temperatures in Maine during October are between 37.4°F and 57.9°F according to rssWeather.com. I wouldn’t go clam digging in October either.]
What is your favorite recipe using the clams?
I can’t pick out a favorite! The muscles in the shell taste like scallops when baked. If you put a little pepper on them, they’re great.
Memere would make clam cakes and pan fry them, we would eat dozens of them at a sitting. The clam chowders were to die for too. She also made some kind of a clam pie with a crust. I wish the recipe was still around.
She even figured out how to make fried clams in a batter that was deep-fried, and delicious! I’m sure if she thought about it, she would have figured out how to make clam cupcakes.
No, I guess I can’t pick out a favorite.
Did you buy or make your equipment?
With time, we did make a lot of our equipment. My brother and I made some “shoes” with multiple 16 penny nails sticking out of the soles and we would just walk along until we stepped on something hard and then dig them up. We also got good enough that we could walk along in our bare feet and identify the harder sand that contained most of the clams.
We also adapted plastic baskets. We stuck them in an inner tube, roped them to our waist, and floated them out of our way. That didn’t last long as a large wave would sometimes dump a few of our clams out. So, we tied an onion sack inside of the tube and that worked better. For a while we used a plastic sled to drag our catch up the beach.
When was the last time you went clam digging?
The last time I tried to go clam digging was a few years ago. I thought the signs saying it was closed to digging were referring to the red tide. I had checked on-line and the state said there were not any red tide issues so I went out at Ferry Beach. There were about a dozen other people digging.
I had picked up about 10 clams and was waist deep in the water when I could see a uniform coming down to the beach. I figured it was a shore warden and ignored him. Pretty soon, I could hear a whistle and I realized he was calling me to come in. When I got there he told me that clam digging was illegal. I argued with him that I checked on the computer and there was no red tide.
He agreed with me, but told me it was closed due to high amounts of fecal pollution. He told me to take my clams and return them to the spot that I had found them. He wanted me to dig little holes and replace them. I looked at him and said the tide had come in a little and I could not do that as it was too deep. He relented and told me to go out a little ways and just dump them.
On my way back, I saw that he had gone to the other people too. He had them digging little holes and returning their clams to the sand.
Do you miss clam digging?
I sometimes miss the digging, but I don’t miss all the work involved. I do miss the clams though. [I definitely miss having ready access to minced clams. We never ran out when I was growing up.]
Sadly, my own children have never even tried clam digging. The red tides and pollution started coming. It has become harder and harder to find locations and times when the beaches are actually open, and it is safe to clam dig. Maybe someday I’ll get the opportunity to try it again, although I’m not sure I would know how to shuck the clams. I better have my dad show me this summer so I’m prepared for someday.
I’m participating in a Blogging A-Z Challenge for April 2016. I will be posting new content every day except Sundays. Each post is associated with a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and ending with Z. My theme for the challenge is Life in Maine, and each post will in some way relate to Maine. There are over 1500 other bloggers participating in the challenge. Click HERE to learn more.