Photo by Naomi Bishop.
While most American families got up early on Easter morning to hunt about their lawns for eggs, my friend (and partner-in-foraging) Leslie, trusty canine companion Roger, and I were combing Grayland beach, on the southwest Washington coast, for razor clams (OK, Roger mostly just ran in circles). There were no bunnies or pastel plastic eggs to be found on this shoreline, just a rainbow of gray, with little definition between the muted-steel sky and the faint slate of the ocean. My eyes were trained on the muddy taupe of the sand most of the day, scanning for “tells,” the tiny, dime-size indents that indicate a clam lurking just below the surface.
It was late March, on one of the dozen weekends of the year that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife opens up some of the state’s beaches for shellfish seekers to dig for a local treat. Razor clams are a popular shellfish for locals in the know, but they’re not commonly found in grocery stores (when they are, they’re usually frozen) and are equally rare on restaurant menus. Named for their similar shape to a straight razor—not for any dangerous edges—razor clams make for one of the easiest, most enjoyable foraging forays in the Pacific Northwest.
We left Seattle around 7am for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the coast, which we timed to meet the low tide. The car was loaded up with a bucket for each digger (as the law requires), our shellfish harvesting licenses (a $7 temporary license is available at most sporting goods stores in the city and many convenience stores near the beach), and one clam gun. No bullets are necessary for this PVC gun, though: just a little muscle helps to work it.
Once a tell is located, the digger centers the gun over it and pushes straight down, creating a vacuum to capture a cylinder of sand and, ideally, a clam. Beginners (that would be us) sometimes miss the clam in their cylinder, giving the digger the great pleasure of plunging her arm blindly into a sandy pit to feel about for a slimy clam in a sharp shell. This is not the most glamorous part of the activity.
Photo by Naomi Bishop
Swinging into Grayland, we hooked a right and drove the car directly onto the sand, parking amid the crowd. A long line of expert-looking diggers were filing away, hastening to depart before the amateurs arrived, I suspected. Our PVC gun and big white buckets pegged us as rookies. The regulars, the gruff-fisherman-esque folk, forgo these trappings; they dig their clams directly, using a special clam shovel, then store them in a mesh bag.
The rules governing clam collection are the same for everyone, though: Once you’ve got 15 clams, you’re done for the day. The hard-core folk usually come first, arriving two or more hours before low tide and digging right at the water’s edge. Some wear high boots or waders to keep the surf out; almost all use shovels for increased accuracy. The 15-clam limit is hard and fast, and it is the first 15 you find. Rookies who mangle their clams by hitting the edge with the plastic gun will keep (and eat) those mangled clams.
When we get there, shortly before low tide, it’s more of a family crowd, kids and dogs running around the beach while the adults dig for clams.It took our eyes a few minutes to adjust to finding tells—looking for a tiny circle indent in a beach full of sand can feel a little like looking for John Smith in the phone book. After the first hour, we’re each about halfway to our limit. Wandering further down the beach, we strike gold: Tells are everywhere, and a few older clammers who have finished pulling their limit are helping rookies out, pointing out tells and lending out their fancy clam gun. The gun runs about $90, they tell us, but it is a miracle worker. No breaking of shells or reaching into the sand with these, just smooth cylinders of sand with a wriggling clam inside.
We finished digging our limit and headed back to the car well before the noon closure of the beach to clammers. We loaded our catch into an ice-filled cooler for the drive back and did our best to shake as much sand off ourselves as we could—the dog’s a lost cause. The fun part is over, but the messy part (cleaning the clams) and the delicious part (eating them) are still to come.
Photo by Leslie Seaton
All the fun and joy of pulling clams, the elation of getting a full limit, is immediately gone when I get home and have to clean them. The first step is blanching them in boiling water, then submerging them in ice water, after which they slip serenely from their shells. Easy, inoffensive. Then you snip the tip of the neck, or siphon. The clam, though already dead, recoils. It’s creepy, though not as creepy as it will get two steps later.
Next you cut down the body, from the foot to the tip, and remove all the innards. Then you squeeze the digger (or foot) and cut out the stomach, which doesn’t seem too bad, until a long, clear wormlike thing ejects itself in the middle of this process. No matter how many times I do it, this takes me by surprise. I’m well aware it’s a digestive enzyme, not a worm, but it’s still unnerving. Luckily, at this point all that’s left is slicing the small intestine from the digger, and then it’s on to the good part, the part that makes all the wormlike objects shooting out of still-moving dead bivalves completely worthwhile: the feasting.
Photo by Leslie Seaton
HOW TO COOK RAZOR CLAMS
The clams can range from three to six inches. Depending on size, you’ll want to serve three to five clams per person as a main dish. The bodies are almost squid-like in texture, with the strong, briny flavor of the sea, while the feet are soft and subtle, so I prefer to separate the two, cooking each in the way that’s best.
The Foot: The tender foot is incredible when fried, and the crispness of a panko crust offers great contrast. Simply coat in flour, dip in beaten egg, and roll in panko. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm up, and then fry in hot oil. Serve with tartar sauce or a horseradish mayonnaise for dipping.
The Body: If you chop the bodies into small pieces, they’ll have a light flavor and a crisp seafood snap to them. Marinate them for 30 minutes in lemon juice and olive oil, and then toss with capers, diced cucumbers, and parsley for a refreshing crudo-style dish. If you’re feeling fancy, serve this in a cleaned half of a clamshell.
About the author: Naomi Bishop is also known as the GastroGnome. Being a GastroGnome does not mean sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages, but rather exploring the wide world of culinary creations. You can read more from the GastroGnome at www.thegastrognome.com and find her on Twitter @gastrognome. She last wrote about poke in Hawaii for Eat Your World.