Taking the plunge

One day last fall, as we were coming off the clamming grounds at Bay Street in Osterville with a peck of quahogs, we saw two guys loading their pickup with two full baskets of steamers. Steamers, as all you clammers know, are generally harder to come by than quahogs. They bury themselves much deeper than their hard-shelled cousins do and, although they do blow holes in the sand that give their presence away, steamer-clam holes look a lot like sand worm holes. I have also spent more time than I care to contemplate digging under holes that have been made by no sea creature I could find, and could have been made by gas bubbling up from the center of the earth, or by somebody’s ski pole. When it comes right down to it, alll holes look pretty much the same.

And the finding of them isn’t the only difficulty with steamers. Once you encounter a bona fide steamer hole, you still have to get the steamer out without breaking its shell. This isn’t easy. The rakes made for steamer digging are short handled, with tines at a right angle to the handle. You kneel on the beach, dig out the sand in front of the suspect hole, take a layer of sand off right above the suspected clam (being careful not to go too deep), and then use your hands to try and locate the steamer. Once you’ve done that, you still have to pry the thing out of the wet sand, a hospitable home he has no inclination to leave.

Digging up a steamer clam from Tamar Haspel on Vimeo.

I have only a tenuous grasp of the physical laws that account for the sucking vacuum behind a clam you’re trying to pull out of wet sand, but I have vast experience with the sucking vacuum itself. Electrolux should be so lucky.

All this by way of saying we had good reason to marvel at the two-peck haul of the guys at Bay Street.

Naturally, we struck up a conversation, hoping to wheedle their secrets out of them. One of their secrets, though, was lying in plain sight in the bed of their pick-up. It looked a lot like a toilet plunger.

“Hey,” I said, with the grace and subtlety that mark all my encounters with strangers, “What’s with the toilet plunger?”

This was one secret they were perfectly willing to share. They described how, when you get to a fertile steamer ground, you use the plunger to dig a kind of crater in the seabed (you use it under water), and the clams just drift up with with sand you displace. You scoop them up with a net, and Bob’s your uncle.

And just where was their particular fertile steamer ground? That, they weren’t telling. I understood.

Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to try the plunge method of clamming. It turns out that purveyors of shellfishing equipment actually sell something called a “clam plunger,” which looks suspiciously like a toilet plunger except that it has a longer stick and a net attached to the non-plunging end. Overall, it looked like the kind of thing we could improvise.

We have a stick. We have a net. And, of course, we have a toilet plunger.

Anyone who either knows me personally or follows this space understands that I am loath to buy anything I can cobble together out of stuff that’s lying around. The clam plunger was just begging to be cobbled. We had all the parts, and the duct tape to cobble them, but even I draw the line somewhere. Call me doctrinaire, but I think anything that’s used in the toilet should not be used in food procurement.

We bought a brand new toilet plunger, and headed out to our very own fertile steamer ground with it, stick, and net. We also brought our conventional gear, just in case.

We had discovered our steamer ground accidentally. We’d gone out for quahogs, but we kept spearing the soft-shell clams with our wicked, long-tined quahog rakes. Exactly where was that, you may ask? I’m not telling, and I know you’ll understand.

We got to our super-secret steamer spot, and Kevin waded out ankle-deep. We found an area that looked to have some steamer holes, and he started plunging. After two or three plunges, he came up empty. No clams, of course, but also no plunger. It had come off the aluminum pole and lodged itself in the sand. The threading on the end of the pole apparently wasn’t a perfect match with the threading on the inside collar of the plunger.

The same physical laws that create the sucking vacuum behind a clam apply to plungers, and it took a good deal of effort to dislodge it. Once we did, we put it back on the stick it came with, and tried again.

It works as advertised, more or less. The plunging creates a crater, and much of the sand and silt you dislodge floats away on the current. A great deal of it, though, seems to settle back in the hole, which we couldn’t make deep enough to reach the clams, which are usually about six to eight inches below the surface.

Whether the hole depth was the problem, or the clamlessness of the spot, we don’t know. We do know that we didn’t plunge up a single clam. We ditched the plunger and went back to the rakes.

None of last year’s steamering excursions had been entirely satisfactory. The clams had been few and far between, and what there had been tended to be below legal size (two inches long). Although we’d never been completely skunked, the ratio of effort invested to clams harvested always seemed a bit high. This, our new fertile clamming ground, made for a much better experience — once we gave up on plunging. Most of the holes that looked like steamer holes proved to be just that, and Kevin and I both got much better at finding them and dislodging them without breaking their shells. Although we had a few casualties and a few shorts, we went home with five dozen steamers.

We had them for lunch, steamed and dipped in butter, accompanied by cole slaw and beer. 

It wasn’t only the clams, though, that made it such a fine morning. There were signs that winter was finally on the wane — fish were jumping, trees were budding. It was warm enough that I didn’t need a hat. The sun was out. It was a joy to be on the beach, clamming with my husband, looking forward to spring.

10 people are having a conversation about “Taking the plunge

  1. I like that floaty around your clam basket. If you want to dig steamers really fast you can sharpen your rake tines on a wheel and cut through the mud in about half the time. I prefer to dig them by hand, but only if they’re for dinner, not more than that.

  2. The desire to cobble something together out of existing stuff you have laying around (and usually pulled out of a dumpster for just such a need) is what differentiates us from ‘the normals’ who are happy to pay the ten bucks for a purpose-built tool They don’t know the fun, self-satisfaction, and constant need for running repairs that they’re missing.

    Those steamers look so delicious…drool, slobber….

  3. Oh Tamara, you make my heart heavy with the wish to be back on Cape Cod! Nobody knows how to prepare a clam entree here in Bend, and most efforts involve sea clams, a westerner’s idea of good shellfish. Rubbery and tough, not much taste, but the word “clam” on the menu seduces me every time. I have not enjoyed real shellfish, cooked right, since my last dinner with Dan and Linda.
    And, there is hardly a tool that can’t be made with a good ‘cobbling’ mind and a roll of duct tape.

  4. How much fun is that?! On my list of things a foodie must do. Love it! I can only imagine how delicious they were w/an icy cold beer!

  5. Beth — That floaty thing is a plain old noodle, available for about $1. wherever pool supplies are sold. (You need to double up, though, to keep the thing afloat when it’s filled with clams.) As for tine-sharpening, it’s critical for quahoging — we have lethal rakes for that. For steamers, though, it doesn’t seem to be so much about cutting through as shovelling out, and our old, rusty rakes seem to do the job.

    Paula — I hadn’t had steamers in months, and they may have tasted better on that account. (The cole slaw was good too — I’ll post the recipe when I get around to measuring.)

    Jen– I think most of us are cobblers at heart, but may not have the means. We had visitors recently who were very excited to go to our dump because they’d never been to one, and they’d often read about projects that start with, “Find a WHATEVER at the dump …”

    Mimi — I’m sorry to hear that Bend and clams are not compatible. I hope you get somewhere clam-savvy soon for a fix.

    CZ — It was WAY fun. Next time you’re on the East coast, I’ll take you out!

  6. Tamar, maybe sharpen isn’t exactly the right word. We ‘lighten’ them. You know how the rake tine has a thickness in the center of the tine where it faces away from you? You grind that down and make it flat, so the rake is lighter and you can dig at a faster rate. Not to say it won’t shorten the lifespan of the tool, but when you need to dig fast, it really helps. Maybe when you go commercial!

  7. I will never forget the first time I went clamming. My husband had decided to learn how to do it..and someone had shown him.. and he then decided to go out and buy all the gear..waders..basket..rake..even those long orange gloves.. he was GEAR GUY for sure..and he was going for Quahogs..me.. I was clueless…and supposed to go for the steamers…and I had a hand rake ( the kind with the thin tines..which do work faster BTW)) and a basket..and it was early spring..and the ground was cold wet and rocky…but I’m a trooper so I figured it out and after squeeezing the first few to death by crushing their amazingly thin shells I had finally started to get it..It was hard tho and after like a half hour I had like 4-5 live clams in my bucket..along with the ones I had crushed…and stood up to take a well earned break when my then 3 year came rushing over to me with a HUGE sea clam shell and declared I HELP..and dropped it in my basket promptly crushing to bits every clam in the basket…..oh my…I have had BETTER clamming days since then..note to parents: kids get their own buckets.ALWATS…my favorite when I came across someone who loved to dig for them but did not like to eat them and game me a whole basket full..the clam fairy we called him..THAT was a great clamming day! THanks for a great story..and reminding me why we live here! Beth

  8. Beth — Now I see what you mean, and it makes perfect sense. We have a rake with flat tines, and one with round tines, and the flat ones undeniably work better.

    B the BW — Now THAT’S a great story. Even with time and distance, I feel your pain. But you’re right — that IS why we live here.

  9. “Goin’ to dig for steam-ahs” was something that happened a lot while I was growing up in MA. Certainly, I’ve dug for more than a few by hand, and found out–just as you did–that actually snagging one of those sand divers is actually quite hard. So hard, in fact, I always tossed the one or two I caught back into the ocean and left catching steamers to the experts. You my dear, may be just the expert I need in my life. 🙂

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