The Art of Clamming: An Illustrated Guide

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An assortment of clams in Netarts Bay [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

I grew up in landlocked Chicago, so clamming was not an integral part of my youth (sorry, Oak Street Beach—I love you, but would not eat your shellfish). I did go clamming once, around age 12, on Martha's Vineyard, but so horrified was I by our catch that I refused to eat the sea bugs until they'd been thoroughly disguised in the form of stuffed Quahogs.

Now that my palate has matured (slightly), I jumped at the chance to go clamming in Netarts Bay a few days before the Feast food festival kicked off in Portland. The great outdoors? Check. Fresh seafood? Check. A rare opportunity to wear full-body waders in public? I was totally in.

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A few weeks before my trip, I got an email asking for my name, DOB, address, and more in order to register my Oregon Shellfish License. Shellfishing season in Oregon lasts all year and at all hours, and with a few protected exceptions, all coastal areas are open. There are daily limits depending on the species you're after (Abalone? You're only allowed one per day; though feel free to grab as many squid or mussels as you can handle—there's no limit on those), but by and large, recreational shellfishing is a pastime for the people.

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Butter clam

But rather than turn us loose in the bay to fend for ourselves, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sent over Shellfish Project Leader Mitch Vance to turn our group of city slickers into clam-finding machines. Clams, you see, aren't exactly hard to catch (their major defense mechanism is...digging a hole), but successfully rooting them out of the muddy sand does require a certain finesse. And the proper equipment.

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Purple varnishes

For the kinds of clams we were after—big, siphon-dangling gapers (similar in appearance to geoducks), butters (aka Martha Washingtons and Quahogs), littlenecks, and delicate little purple varnishes, we used a combination of rakes, shovels, cylindrical air-powdered tubes, and our good old-fashioned bare hands. (The latter ultimately proved more satisfying in a primal, hunter-gatherer kind of way, nevermind the waders.)

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Clams are not great at hiding themselves—when the tide pulls back, little holes called "shows" appear in the sand above the clam's nesting spot. Expert clammers can tell the species of clam just from its show, but we mostly just poked around anywhere we saw a little hole, of which there were several...hundred. Gapers tend to dig deep, so a tube or shovel is useful, but cockles and purple varnishes are often right near the surface, so hands do just fine. Clamming will do wonders for your manicure.

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See the show?

There are limits the number of bay clams you can harvest every day, and it is considered proper clam etiquette to refill the hole you've made in the sand before leaving. After a few hours tooling around in Vance's little boat, stopping at various sand bars, we'd gathered our daily limit in a big rubber bucket with a few inches of water. The clams sputtered in their confinement, siphoning and shooting little bubbles across the surface. After a quick clean, trim, and steam, they would be lunch.

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We ate some of our clams raw in a spicy marinated pepper salad, and others steamed in to a light tomato-based stew studded with chorizo and fresh herbs, but there are plenty of other ways to prepare the bivalves. Here are a few of our favorites:

Have you ever been clamming? What's your favorite way to prepare your catch?

About the author: Jamie Feldmar is a noodle aficionado, barbecue lover, and the managing editor of Serious Eats. You can follow her on Twitter at @jfeldmar.

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