Residents of and visitors to Narragansett Bay spend many low tide cycles digging clams and muscles, tying chicken legs to string and crabbing, baiting lines and casting into the sea. We don’t so much sing for our supper as “ing” for dinner. We eat the sea’s bounty in the form of clam stuffies, crab cakes, chowdas, grilled, fried or blackened catch of the day, and boiled anything caught from the chilly north Atlantic waters.
During many a summer gone by, our family members would crowd onto our sturdy Boston Whaler, zip down river to an undisclosed location and do the clam dance. It is a simple heal to toe movement done walking through sand and silt in a foot or less of water. When a foot makes contact with a solid object lodged about a hand’s span down in the muck a fresh little neck or quahog clam is found. With a boatload of clammers we could be assured of at least 75 clams within less than a half an hour of doing the dance.
My job is to wash the clams and sort them by size. From big to small there are quahogs for chowda, cherrystones for stuffies and cakes, and little necks for grilling or steaming. I use a garden hose in the backyard and then decide how to cook them. There are many options, steaming and grilling them is the first step. Then it’s either stuff them with Portuguese sausage, cracker crumbs and secret seasonings and bake, or make red (Manhattan), clear (Rhode Island) or white (New England) chowda. Yes, those afflicted with a Rhode Island accent drop final “r’s” on all spoken words.
I haven’t mastered is the skill of shucking raw clams. This involves sliding a special dull knife between the halves making a quick twist and opening the shell. The chilly meat can be slurped down raw, decked out with pepperoni and garlic butter on the grill or baked with spinach and parmesan cheese.
There is a certain finesse needed to shuck a clam. Mishaps can involve nasty punctures to hand muscles and sliced thumbs. This culinary skill can be seen from a positive or negative view. Shucks can mean disappointment, as in “Aww, shucks”. In life, it’s something you don’t do well and give up on quick. We compensate for our weaknesses by cooking clams and let them open themselves.
Shucking is also a word that means “to open”. It’s pretty cool to open ourselves to new skills, practice them often, endure a few nicks, and savor the joy of our work. Roger Williams University recently announced the “Grow Your Own” program to help people raise their own oysters. The University will provide aspiring aquaculturists with instruction, equipment, and seed oysters. The RI-OGRE (Oyster Gardening for Restoration and Enhancement) program will enroll anyone who has a dock registered with the Coastal Resources Council in good clean water. Everyone has to volunteer in the recreational oyster garden program and take a three day course. Finally, something to do during retirement – become an oyster farmer. I’ve got to practice shucking.