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THE UBIQUITOUS CLAM
"They scattered up & down . . . by ye waterside, wher they could find ground nuts and clams." (William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, II, 130.)
SURPRISING as it may seem, the clam, at least under his own name, does not appear in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And yet the clam is proverbial, metaphorical, and substantial, so substantial, in fact, that individuals of uncertain digestion have been rendered distinctly unhappy after a hearty encounter. But what is more surprising to the average person, and especially to the novice in clamming, is where all the clams come from for the unending clam-bakes, clam-chowders, and the various concoctions necessitating a generous supply of these silent shellfish. A journey to the beach at low tide (for all clammers know from the reference to that animal's joyous spirit at high water that clamming is useless at that period) generally fails to accomplish more than a very lame back, muddy feet, and a paltry dozen or more specimens of the clam family, generally of immature age. The profusion of empty shells scattered about encourage the clammer into the belief that here, at least, is a favorable locality for his first efforts, and he grasps his fork and bends low, thrusting the implement into the black ooze with keen anticipation that the mud will disclose a whole family of clams, ready at hand for capture; but, instead, he is rewarded by finding a number of white shells, seemingly clams, but in reality merely their shells held closely together by mud and sand, the skeletons of former bivalves whose souls have fled to other worlds and whose bodies have long since disappeared the way of all flesh. And so he seeks another spot, and the same process is repeated. Each time he is conscious of an increasing stiffening of the back, recalling former twinges of lumbago, and after an hour or so the tide forces him to retreat, and he returns dejectedly to partake of a thin clam-broth, upon the top of which, as a consolation prize, his wife has tactfully placed a little whipped cream.
And yet the clam is ubiquitous, once you know him, and the clammer, himself, has been immortalized by Mr. William J. Hopkins in several delightful stories with which certain readers are familiar. The enthusiast soon learns their favorite haunts and on favorable tides he gathers these bivalves by the pailful. For chowders and for bait alike he digs, constructs a wire cage in which to keep his precious clams from day to day, and week to week, and thus they become, as it were, almost a part of his summer entourage.
The clam is a numerous family (Mya arenaria, were one to become scientific). The ordinary mud clam which inhabits the tidewater harbors of our coasts; the quahog, whose young, termed "little necks," are served, uncooked, as appetizers; and the sea clam, are very familiar in appearance and habits; but all varieties are secured in different ways and in varying localities, and therein lies an added charm to the pastime of clam-digging.
There is a certain portion of the coast line in a very attractive section of Cape Cod, which shall be nameless, where all varieties of these mollusks abound, and it is difficult at times to decide which variety to pursue. The ordinary mud clam is generally sought on the especially low tides so kindly afforded by the moon at stated intervals. It is then that the tide , line resembles miniature trenches -- first-line defenses, if you will --so many and so persistent are the pursuers, who look for all the world as if they were digging themselves in in anticipation of a machine-gun attack.
The quahog is more secure, for he lives in No Man's Land, beyond the trenches and just under the surface of the mud. If one is walking up a salty, muddy creek -- and surprising as the fact may seem, one often does follow this watery bypath -- the foot will continue to disclose these big fellows. In the course of an hour of this method of locomotion, a full pail of quahogs may be secured without further discomfort than a pair of wet legs and two very muddy feet. The fishermen, however, regard such efforts as time lost. They manipulate two long-handled rakes bound together at the bottom, and with this implement a sort of hand-dredging process is performed which apparently yields better results. But it is only the native fisherman, with his knowledge of tides and currents, of sandy or muddy bottoms, ofchannels and shoals, who can successfully locate the choice spots where these quahogs lie hidden beneath water, seaweed, and mud.
The sea clam is as immaculately clean as his harbor cousin is muddy. He is likewise found just beneath the surface of the water, buried in firm white sand over which the white crested breakers foam on the beach. These clams are not greatly valued as food. They are gamy and tough in comparison to their brethren and a sharp contrast in appearance, with their delicate, smooth shell of an exquisite cafe au lait color, and it is for this reason, perhaps, that only the most enthusiastic of clammers or fishermen after bait know of their whereabouts.
Along the beaches where thousands of Americans may be seen in impressionistic attire, disporting themselves by bobbing up and down in the waves, one could easily secure a pailful of these fascinating creatures by wading out and groping in the sands. No more exhilarating pleasure can be secured from surf bathing than in this pastime, which calls for agility in dodging the breakers as they roll in. While you are in the act of dislodging a fine fat specimen, your pail grasped in one hand, the other embedded in the sand seeking your prey, your body is swept first in, then out, by the waves. In order to regain your balance you lose your hold, just escape being toppled over by the next wave rushing toward its finish on the sands, and miss the clam; and so the process begins all over again.
The "little necks" have their own places of abode close to the surface of the mud in sequestered inlets. Now and again the plebeian clammer will come across a stray family of little fellows while in quest of the common variety, but as a pastime digging for "little necks" has but little zest:
And now, after realizing the fascination of clamming, why be surprised if, when you run down to the Cape for a week-end, your host grips you with a hand, cold and moist from submersion -- a "clammy hand"; and why be surprised if on the following day, instead of the routine of golf and tennis, you are initiated into this simple sport? The surprise would come to the writer of this slight dissertation if he should find you callous to the delight of clamming or disrespectful of the occupation of the clammer.