Displaced by the salmon and eclipsed by the oyster, the clam is perhaps the forgotten star of the Puget Sound. But once it was the main seafood symbol of the region. Even before restaurateur Ivar Haglund made his “Acres of Clams” restaurant a Seattle landmark, the clam’s status was lodged on the shores of Northwest Native American lore. In fact it had a role in the origin of man. According to Haida tradition, Raven discovered a large clamshell on the beach and looked inside to find dozens of little people. Lonely for someone to play with and trick, he coaxed them out of the shell and thus populated the land.
On the north end of Penn Cove on Whidbey Island one day early this fall, Eugene Thrasher lifts his clamming gear out of the trunk of his car. A trained WSU Beach Watcher with more than 1,000 volunteer hours under his belt, he has been digging and eating clams in Washington for half a century. Thrasher is the guy to ask if you want to learn how to find and dig a clam.
Thrasher’s clam interest started soon after he moved to Washington to take a job at Boeing. There one of his coworkers urged him to try the bivalve. “So I went to Ivar’s and ordered clams,” he says. The experience was painful. “They had sand in them,” he says with a grimace.
When he told his coworker, the man said he really ought to go out and dig his own. “So that’s what I did,” says Thrasher. “And there was sand. Again.” Then the coworker told him about soaking the clams overnight with cornmeal which the creatures would use to clean the sand out themselves. “So I dug some more clams, added some cornstarch to their water and guess what?,” he says. “Once I cooked them, they were all gooey.” He had to sort out that he needed cornmeal, and not starch, and he finally had the clam dinner he was seeking as well a lifelong interest in finding and harvesting clams. Thrasher tells his story as he treks out across the inlet to a muddy, sandy beach, bucket in one hand and shovel in the other. “You walk along the beach and where one squirts up, you know they’re all there.”
Just across the inlet two people are flinging their shovels, mud piles up around them as they carve a three-foot hole in the beach. Thrasher tsks, noting that they’re making it harder than they need to, and they’re damaging the beach for the remaining wildlife.
Thrasher’s way of digging clams is elegant and simple. He spots several holes clustered within a 10-inch radius and says, “There are butter clams here, six or seven of them.” He pushes his shovel into the mud and pulls up a chunk of soil, then another shovel-full, then another. “Dig quickly, as deep as you can and expand the hole,” he says, “You end up digging one hole and you get four clams.”
But don’t sort through the dirt while you’re digging, he adds, or you’ll lose the clams left in the hole. Also, put all the dirt in one place, that way it’s easier to fill in the hole when you’re done.
Clamming seems complicated. With tidal charts, required shellfish licenses, daily limits, knowing where to look, identifying a “clam show” (a hole or dimple made in the sand by the clam’s neck), knowing that the shovel should be on the water side of the hole, or a long metal tube called a “clam gun” has to be slanted toward the dunes, it’s almost too much. But to watch Thrasher do it, a little know-how, a little finesse, and you’ll have dug your limit in no time. Moments after he starts his small hole, three medium-sized butter clams (about three inches wide) lay on the surface.
Thrasher’s butter clam is just one of the treasures offered on Washington’s shores. A rarer, meatier, treat lives out on the soft sandy beaches of the coast from California up to Alaska. Because it looks like a large unopened straight razor, it is called the razor clam. It is one of the first signs of spring in Alaska for historian Katherine Johnson-Ringsmuth, PhD ’05. The low tides of the season reveal thousands of the meaty razor clams. People and bears flock to the shores to dig them up.
Johnson-Ringsmuth became something of a west coast clam history expert after researching her book Buried Dreams: The Rise and Fall of a Clam Cannery on the Katmai Coast. The clam canning industry in the west started at the turn of the century with the razor clam operations in Oregon. Washington, with its rich clam beaches, came on the scene in 1914 with canneries surfacing in Aberdeen, Grayland, and Copalis. Guy Halferty, heir to a large Oregon business, moved Pioneer Packing Company to Grays Harbor. Around the same time, prohibition pushed a large brewery in Aberdeen into becoming the Surf Packing Company, another clam cannery. As market demand increased, these canneries pushed north—toward Alaska near the town of Cordova.
Digging razor clams on the west coast is a much different business than going after the butter clams in the Puget Sound or the sturdier quahogs and mud clams on the east coast. The east coast clams can be dug with big dredges, while “razor clams are very delicate,” says Johnson-Ringsmuth. “They have to be dug by hand.” Which was why the western canneries were at a disadvantage, she says. “It took a lot of time and was expensive.” The final blow was a massive earthquake in 1964, which wiped out the clamming beds in Alaska and the canneries around Cordova, effectively closing the west coast clam canning industry.
To dig razors people use one of two tools—either a narrow shovel or the long tube called a clam gun that is inserted several feet into the sand over the clam show. The razors are fast moving—they can dig down an inch a second and go as far as five feet deep—so it’s either a few quick digs and you stick your arm in the hole, or it’s a single long push and pull of the tube. Getting a razor clam is a bit of work, says Johnson-Ringsmuth, but it’s worth it.
Because razor clams have recently been overfished and the stocks in Washington have dropped alarmingly low, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife is keeping a close eye on them. Now the clams may be harvested only during two periods of the year—one starting in October, and the other in the spring. In some years, the days open for harvest have ranged from 15 to 35. Fortunately, surveys this year suggest the population has increased on four of the five key razor clam beaches, which means a longer harvest period.
We must mention here the king of clams, the geoduck. The world’s largest burrowing clam lives in deep water and is only harvested during very low tides. It can easily weigh nearly two pounds, but it takes longer than its cousins to mature, reaching its full size by 15 years.
Today, though, when most people think of clams, it’s likely the smaller Manila that comes to mind. The classic eating Manila hitchhiked its way to Washington’s beaches in oyster seed shipments from Japan. They live at about half-tide level and since their siphons are short, they only bury themselves two to four inches deep.
Its cousin, the native littleneck, has about the same size and appearance, only where the manila is oblong, the littleneck is rounder.
It is the littleneck and the Manila that stole the scene in the 1950s, around the time restaurateur and folk singer Ivar Haglund made the clam the center of the Seattle seafood scene with his “Acres of Clams” restaurant on Alaskan Way. Promoting clam culture and delighting patrons with his witticisms like “keep clam,” and “man can live on clams alone,” he whetted the region’s appetite with his steamer clams and chowders.
Ivar even urged that a stamp be created to celebrate the humble bivalve. “Clams keep their mouth shut,” he wrote to Washington’s U.S. Senators years ago, and they “never stick their neck out when the enemy is around.”
Also a folk singer, Haglund got the name of his restaurant from a regional folk song from the 19th century. The piece describes a settler who tried prospecting for gold, endured hardship, and finally gave up and settled along Puget Sound. The last verse:
No longer the slave of ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams
As I think of my pleasant condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.