Shellfish have many virtues. They’re tasty and versatile, low in calories and high in minerals. They’re good raw or cooked. They freeze well. There’s really only one problem with shellfish: shells. Since oyster season opened last October, I figure Kevin and I have gone through almost 400 oysters. Every single bloody one of them had to be shucked, and I’ve finally become a competent oyster shucker. Clams, though, are another story. They just won’t give it up for me. I know I’m supposed to find their weak point, skillfully insinuate the blade of my clam knife between the shells, and then, with a deft twist, pry them open, but I’m afraid deftness has never been my long suit.
My friend Linda, though, is as deft as the day is long, and she promised to help me master clam shucking.
First, though, we needed clams. The last time we’d gone clamming, we tried Barnstable Harbor, which seems home to only large-size clams, with nary a littleneck. (How does that happen? Every clam is a small clam before it’s a large clam. Maybe the harbor is like the gated community my in-laws live in, where residents have to be 55 and children aren’t allowed.) This time, we decided on Cotuit Bay, on the ocean side of the Cape. We first went to an area Kevin and I had successfully mined for littlenecks in the past. It was frozen over, so we headed a little north to a spot I’d never been to.
The presence of other clammers boded well, and we waded in. Three seconds later, Linda had a basket full of clams and I had nothing. Or that’s what it seemed like. But I’m used to being out-clammed by Linda, and I take it in stride. In a little under an hour, we both had a peck’s worth of clams of varying sizes, with a good portion of littlenecks.
That evening, Linda and her husband, Dan, had a few friends over to watch the Super Bowl, and I brought about two dozen of my smallest clams for a pre-game raw bar. Assuming, that is, that I could get them open.
Linda took the bowl from me and said in a low voice, “We’ll have these open in no time.”
“Why are you whispering?” I asked, automatically matching my tone to hers.
“Because you have to sneak up on them,” she told me.
I understand that, if you intend to eat them, many animals have to be snuck up on. Deer. Wild turkeys. Rabbits. But clams? I’d always thought of them as imperturbable.
“If you scare them, they close tighter,” she explained. Aha! Whence the expression “clam up.”
This was beginning to make sense to me. My previous attempts at clam shucking had involved some pretty knocked-around clams.
I carefully set the bowl of littlenecks on the counter. Linda gently took one out, and placed it, long edge down, on the cutting board. The more curved edge of the clam, where the delineation between upper and lower shells is most obvious, faced up. She placed the clam knife blade between the shells and pushed down. The thing opened, just like that. The knife sliced through the clam, leaving half attached to the upper shell, and half attached to the lower. She cut both halves free – deftly – and handed me the clam. It was spectacular, briny and sweet.
Long years of experience trying to imitate people who are good at things has taught me that part of being good at things is making them look much easier than they actually are. Sure, when Linda does it, she opens the clam. When I do it, I slice off a fingertip. I was not sanguine as I took up the clam knife.
I picked up a clam and put it, long edge down, on the cutting board. I put the blade between the shells and pressed down.
To my astonishment, the clam simply opened. Just like that.
We set to work, and we did indeed have the whole bowl shucked in no time, except for one stubborn hold-out. I couldn’t get the thing to crack, and I gave up and handed it to Linda.
“You do the shuckin’,” I said. “I’ll do the jivin’.”
She, of course, got it open on her first try. As she was cutting it loose from its shell, she let out a cry of astonishment.
“Look,” she said, holding up a small purple bead, about a quarter-inch in diameter, “a pearl!”
And so it was. A perfectly round pearl, light purple on one side and dark purple with an eye in the middle on the other. Clams, it seems, aren’t the only reward for clamming.