A lotta clams

I’ve always been too literal for my own good. A complete lack of awareness of this thing they call subtext has cramped my appreciation for many works of literature. Ulysses, say. Or any Henry James novel north of The Portrait of a Lady (that one, I get). “Concrete-bound,” I think of it as.

I remember once, years ago, going with my parents to a production of the Ionesco play, The Chairs. We couldn’t get three seats together, so I sat by myself. Throughout the play, I just kept thinking that, when it was over, my mother, who is much smarter than I am, would have to explain it to me.

“Mom, what was that play about?” I asked as we walked out of the theater.

When she said “I have no idea,” I was relieved beyond measure. I’m so used to not understanding books, movies, and plays that it was gratifying to find out that, this time, it was the play that was impenetrable.

Yesterday, I realized how fitting it is that someone as concrete-bound as I am is in the shellfish business.

Over three days of bullraking, Kevin and I harvested about three hundred pounds of clams. That’s about four bushels’ worth. Most of them were chowder-size, but we had a smattering of littlenecks and cherrystones. We were then faced with the question: What do you do with three hundred pounds of clams?

Trust me, there are only so many you can eat. And, since we are, after all, in the shellfish business, it seemed appropriate to sell them.

Our first step was to go to our friend Les, of Barnstable Seafarms. Besides being an oyster grower, Les is also a wholesaler, and some of the restaurants he supplies with oysters also want clams. Usually, though, they’re not interested in the big ones – they only want littlenecks.

Partly because one of his customers needed them, and partly because I think he got a kick out of being our very first shellfish sale, Les was willing to buy a bag of 100 littlenecks from us for the top-dollar, princely sum of twenty dollars!

It was stupidly, ridiculously, disproportionately exciting to get that first check. Twenty lousy bucks, it was, but after all the outlay we’d laid out for boats, permits, equipment, and seed, it was good to see those first few dollars flowing in the other direction.

But we still had the question of what to do with the remaining 295 pounds of clams.

We stopped by Joe’s Lobster Mart, the fish market in Sandwich, right on the Cape Cod Canal. Any fish we eat that we don’t catch ourselves, we buy from Joe’s. Perhaps, Kevin thought, in a reversal of roles, we could sell to Joe’s. Besides being a retail fish market, they’re a major wholesaler.

Kevin went in the back, where they process the fish, and talked to the manager there. As it happened, they needed clams, and would buy all we could supply.

The clam sorter, operated by the Joe's guy, whose name I didn't get

Excellent. We went home, got our clams, and brought them over. With help from the Joe’s guys, we loaded them onto a motorized dolly and brought them in. From the dolly, they go into the clam sorter.

The clam sorter is a very cool thing. It’s got a big hopper on one end, and you dump the clams in it. Then you send them down a chute that sorts them using three sets of rollers. Each set is two rollers, a fixed distance apart, with the widest separation on the top set and the narrowest on the bottom.

If a clam is too wide to fall through the first set, it’s a chowder. If it falls through the first, but not the second, it’s a cherrystone. The second, but not the third, it’s a littleneck. If it falls through the third set, it’s too small to be legal.

Each set of rollers leads to a chute to which bags are attached, and one guy sends the clams through the machine while another pulls the bags off when they get full. There’s a counter that keeps track of littlenecks and cherrystones, which they buy by the clam. The larger clams, which they buy by the pound, get weighed.

The guys at Joe’s, who run this machine every day, were amused by my fascination with it, and they were good-natured enough to answer all my questions and let me take some pictures.

When all was said and done, we had 42 littlenecks, 211 cherrystones, and 250 pounds of chowders. The check was just a few cents shy of a hundred bucks.

By the time we filled the truck with gas and bought a nice bottle of wine from our friend Priscilla at Canterbury liquors, our business’s first $120. had been substantially reduced, but that was okay. We opened the wine (which we drank with a meal of pasta with, of course, clam sauce), and toasted our first sale.

Rumor has it that “clams” got to be slang for money because the shells were used for wampum by native Americans. But I’m here to tell you that clams are, literally, money. Not a whole lot of it, but still.

Ionesco would not approve.

13 people are having a conversation about “A lotta clams

  1. Congratulations! You won’t forget that first paycheck as long as you live. And the clam sorter is fascinating.

    I still get excited when I find a £1 coin in my honesty box for a half dozen eggs. But enough money to fill the tank with gas AND buy a bottle of wine? From selling to a wholesaler?!?!That’s farming territory.

    I don’t know if it would help with product longevity or be an artisanal food, but a smokery near us sells pots of smoked clams. I believe you already have the necessary equipment…

  2. I love this story and these photos! Great job! BTW I wonder if CapeAbilities would buy any to make the clam pies for Centerville Pie Company?

  3. I’m so relieved to know that you can get out of college and still not understand the meaning of stuff. I thought it was just my lack of a sheep skin….

    Steve had to explain a laxative commercial to me the other night. The guy struggling to get past the lady in the airplane was the turd. Get it? It was hard to get out.

    I always look to him to help me with the big picture.

    Congratulations on your first shellfish sale.

  4. And you thought Starving Off The Land might not be the place to talk about your oyster farming? Your story was wonderful, funny as always and educational to boot. I loved the happenings at Joe’s Lobster Market. Of course you were fascinated – so were we! Congratulations on the first return on this new investment – and may you have many more.

  5. Having recently moved from a coastal town in NC, where a few commercial clammers still ply their trade, I was always shocked and amazed with the wholesale prices they got for their efforts. In 20 years, the price of clams has barely changed, while the costs for gasoline, permits and everything else that goes into it has increased exponentially. They and you have my utmost respect for the work you do. The siren song of the mudflat must be powerful indeed.

  6. velvet goldmine says:

    I was halfway expecting to see you selling oysters at the Wellfleet festival last weekend. But I suppose that’s something you have to put in for months ahead of time.

  7. Pat — Manhattan? You mean to say we lived in Manhattan? It must have been a looooong time ago …

    Jen — I’d love to do some version of smoked clams. The problem with doing any kind of processing is the permitting. We’re allowed to transport shellfish from grant to house to wholesaler, and that’s it. Once you start processing, you need high-tech facilities and a whole new set of permits. But we might try give it a go at home, for our own use — it’s something I’ve never thought of.

    Dina — I’d love to, but it’s that pesky permitting. We can only sell to wholesalers.

    Paula — As far as I’m concerned, a diploma’s barely worth the sheepskin it’s printed on. Any bonehead can go to school. And one of the nice things about a free society is that information is in the public domain — no need to pay $50K a year to get it.

    Kate — I felt profligate buying the wine, but I think it was worth it. I think there’s something to be said for marking special occasions that way.

    Judy — Thanks! I’m glad our new livelihood is going over well.

    Jamie — Clamming is definitely a tough way to make a living. Fishing, lobstering, shellfishing — it’s all difficult work, and sometimes dangerous. The mudflat’s siren song is indeed compelling. I think anyone who’s ever grown anything to eat, either for himself or to sell, understands the satisfaction in it.

    VG — We don’t have oysters to sell yet! We’ll have some next summer, but not a full crop until the following year. Maybe then …

  8. Wow! What a haul! I’d love to get into that but live 2 hours from the coast in Oregon. My kiddo suffers car sickness so won’t be able to get there anytime soon.

Converstion is closed.