All About Geoduck: The Life of a (Delicious) Oversized Mollusk

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The geoduck is kinda of freaky-looking. [Photographs: Naomi Tomky except where noted]

Correct pronunciation of the word "geoduck" (a large clam native to the Pacific Northwest) is practically a citizenship test for Northwesterners. It may seem counterintuitive based on the spelling, but you say it "gooey-duck," and according to the folks at Evergreen State College—whose mascot is the geoduck—the name is derived from a Lushootseed (Native American) word meaning "dig deep." Once you're square on the name, it's difficult to make it two seconds into a discussion of geoduck without somebody mentioning its resemblance to male genitalia.

Let's be clear: if anything, the geoduck looks like the grotesque, wrinkled schlong of a deformed hippopotamus. Jonathan Swift famously said that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster, but that somebody doesn't hold a candle to whoever first ate geoduck. Presumably they were either starving to death—and happened to be three feet underground at low tide—or had a morbid sense of curiosity and didn't mind getting squirted in the face. (Did we mention that they spurt?)

If your mind doesn't go straight to the love muscle, says Damiana Merryweather, the general manager of Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar's Queen Anne location, "you're blind or willfully ignoring it." But she considers the geoduck's bizarre appearance a good thing: "Getting people giggling is a good entry point," she says, to introducing them to the less obvious—but more delicious—attributes of the outlandish animal. Award-winning chef Ethan Stowell of Mkt. and Staple & Fancy describes fresh, raw geoduck as a taste of what "every piece of seafood should be," praising its ocean-y flavor, sweetness, and clean, vibrant snap.

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Geoduck with cucumber, radish, grapefruit, and fried sage at Anchovies & Olives in Seattle. [Photograph: Geoffrey Smith]

To Northwesterners, it tastes like where we live. Even in Seattle, the region's biggest city, you can smell saltwater breezes through the crisp air; geoduck brings us to those breezes. The phallic clam occupies a curious intersection of local points of pride: love of the natural resources of the area, great food, and being just a little bit weird up in our curious corner of the country. Stowell says, "Something so specific to the Northwest as geoduck demands a level of respect. Anywhere you eat good geoduck, it comes from here, helping to illustrate that the Northwest is an awesome place to cook, live, and eat."

The brininess and crunchy texture draw chefs to the clams. Most tend to keep preparations simple: it's already imbued with strong flavors of the sea and blessed with crunch. The geoduck has two parts: a long neck, which pokes out of the shell, sometimes called the siphon, which is often served raw, in a ceviche or crudo preparation, and the much thicker body or breast, which has been sheltered inside the shell. Eric Donnelly of RockCreek Seafood & Spirits prefers to slice the body thickly, pound it out to tenderize it, dust it with flour, and pan-fry, giving it a schnitzel-like texture that retains the sea-infused taste of fresh clams.

Top-notch geoduck weighs about two and a half pounds, has light-colored meat, a long neck, and fetches top dollar—mostly in China. There, says Paul Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms, expensive, imported live seafood is a mark of status at business meetings and gatherings held at restaurants. Geoduck is also considered an aphrodisiac for obvious reasons, though the Chinese name translates to the much more clean-minded "elephant trunk." It's often found served in hot pot, though is sometimes fried, salt-and-pepper style, stir-fried with XO sauce, or used to add flavor and texture to congee. Taylor Shellfish now sells about half of their 500,000-700,000 pounds of geoduck each year to China, including nearly all of the highest-quality clams.

After years of enjoying geoduck at local restaurants, we wanted to find out more: How does one farm this strange beast the shape of a giant tumescent wang and what does it take to pull this freaky animal from the ground? What makes a geoduck taste its best? We went to the source to find out, touring Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Washington, where fourth- and fifth-generation shellfish farmers have been planting and harvesting geoducks since 1992.

Breeding Geoduck

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At Taylor Shellfish Farms, the process starts with wild geoducks, harvested by divers from the deep water of lots leased from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. They begin with wild geoducks to keep from possibly altering the gene pool of the wild population. Taylor's divers pull adult clams from the wild and bring them to the hatchery.

Dave Pederson, the hatchery manager, explains that that, like most clams, each geoduck's neck has two siphons: the intake, through which they eat, and the outtake, through which they both defecate and release their eggs or sperm. At the hatchery, the adult geoducks are given a diet loaded with high-fat algae (the fat makes for healthier eggs)—and placed in warm water to trick them into thinking it's time to turn the lights down low and get their baby-making on.

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Developing geoducks spend the early days of their lives in warm, filtered water, eating the best algae, free-floating plankton, and flagellates that Pederson can find. He says that the main limiting factor in the hatchery's production of geoduck seed is producing enough of their food. Since the ocean has become more acidic, the Taylor team adds carbonate to the water as it comes in to lift the pH of the water to ideal levels.

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Once the geoduck 'seeds' are finally large enough to see, they need not just water and food, but also sand. They'll start to dig into the sand, sticking their tiny necks up and out. Soon it's time to transfer them to a large barge afloat in a nearby inlet.

Planting Geoduck

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Basically, "we coddle them," Paul Taylor says when asked why Taylor Shellfish's geoducks taste so good. After leaving the hatchery and before getting planted in the sand, the geoducks arrive at a special floating raft system designed by Taylor's in-house engineer. This intermediate home lets the clams grow a little bit larger before they're planted into the sand, making it more likely that they'll survive and produce a more consistent crop. Before the raft step was introduced, Taylor's crew would plant four or five geoducks in each tube in the sand in the hopes of growing one to adulthood, now they plant only three.

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The raft dangles bins full of sand and geoduck seed into the water, giving the tiny clams a chance to grow. Ideally, the clams stay on the raft for three to 12 months, but this year, Taylor has had some slow growers and chosen to leave batches as long as two years. Once the geoducks are declared large enough to transfer, they are hauled up onto the raft and workers use screens to sort the clams by size before moving them to their permanent home on the beach.

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Left alone, a geoduck could live as long as 150 years, but Taylor will likely harvest them after about five years for the best size, taste, and texture. In order to help keep them safe from predators like crabs and diving ducks, the Taylor crew places the geoduck inside a piece of PVC pipe, which protects them until they can dig themselves deeper into the sand. Taylor will remove the pipe to reuse it in a year or two—at that point the geoduck can survive on its own.

Harvesting Geoduck

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A field of geoducks is something like the fireswamp scene in The Princess Bride, only instead of shooting up spouts of fire in random places at random intervals, it's just little fountains of water. Harvesters look for a tell—the hole where the water shot from, or the tip of a siphon sticking up through the sand.

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When was the last time you coated your arm in rubber and neoprene and plunged it into the sand up to your shoulder while feeling around blindly for a large, penis-shaped stick of flesh? If your job were digging geoducks, the answer would be multiple times a day.

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In order to loosen up the sand—making it easier to plunge your arm in and harder for the geoduck to move—the digger uses a water hose to blast water down into the geoducks' deep, sandy home. At this point, the digger can reach down into the hole and grab the clam, hopefully by the body rather than the neck, to avoid stressing or damaging the clam.

Harvesters place a rubber band around the shell and body, which keeps tension on the geoduck. "When they're in the sand," Paul tells us, "it has the pressure of the sand." But, once out in the air, "the muscle to keep [the clam] closed is not that strong, so the shell will relax and open up." This dries out the meat, and makes for less good eating.

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Much of what Taylor Shellfish does to keep the geoducks tasting their best has more to do with logistics than sea life: the clams are put into flowing water as soon as they're pulled, then transported in trucks that keep them cool, and shipped out the same day of harvest.

Digging Into the Clam

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Chef Kim Sturts serves geoduck crudo on a radish and cucumber salad with avocado puree and radish granita.

Taylor Shellfish Farms ships much of its geoduck live to Asia, but some remains in the U.S., particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where chefs consider it something of a rite of passage to cook. To serve the neck raw, chefs blanch it in boiling water to remove the skin, then slice it very thin, sometimes with crunchy complements like fennel, celery, and radish. Both Stowell and Donnelly like to pair the neck with cucumber: Donnelly pickles the cucumber and adds a black vinegar and soy vinaigrette, while Stowell keeps things simple with good olive oil and a bit of citrus. Serious Eats' own Chichi Wang describes geoduck as somewhere between "chewy clam and a tender abalone, though crisper in texture than either," suggesting a combination of sashimi neck and sautéed body if you're looking to serve geoduck at home.

Damiana Merryweather, the manager of Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar (the restaurant outlet of the farm), says that they sell about 15 pounds a week of the clams to restaurant guests. She admits that the live geoduck that sits in tanks in the front of the bar can seem to be something of a party trick. But she also sees it as an opportunity to start a conversation with the customer: people see what chef Donnelly calls "this bizarre, phallic-looking bivalve," say its funny name, and always want to know more about this culinary symbol of the Pacific Northwest—and that's before they've even tasted it.