EASTHAM — Patience, perseverance, and 25 dollars. In Eastham, if you have all three, you can buy a year’s worth of serenity, plein air exercise, and sustainably harvested seafood: you can scratch for clams.
A lifelong interloper here, I have been clam-curious since childhood. I used to delight in trolling the tidal flats off Campground Beach, teasing out ankle-tickling spouts from burrowing razor clams by stomping next to the telltale siphon holes that riddled the sandbars. I’d dig furiously to catch up to them, ending up with a hapless few in my plastic beach pail alongside a hermit crab or two.
“These aren’t the clams for us to eat,” my grandmother — a meat-and-potatoes Irishwoman — would say, liberating my haul before shuffling me off to Arnold’s for fried strips.
I didn’t discover soft-shell clams until I was old enough to install myself at the bar of the Chatham Squire. There I gleefully grazed on mounds of sweet and salty Monomoy steamers. Oh, the incomparable joy of slurping those first buttery whole-bellies and Cape brews of the summer!
The quahog crush, my love of Mercenaria mercenaria, came later. It started when I was beachcombing, with a glint of the loveliest periwinkle tossed up by the sea and conspicuous amidst the tumble of earth-toned rocks and ocean rubble. I picked it up, this semi-polished piece of purple, a sand-smoothed fragment of a hard-shell clam. Now I gather the pieces like so many found quarters, banking them in a large glass apothecary jar, but not before taking care to wash, dry, and massage each piece with mineral oil, to buff it to a luminous lavender.
Combing the tidal flats for fresh quahogs has been my most recent obsession, starting shortly after I joined the ranks of Eastham homeowners in 2019. Enclosed with my tax bill that spring was an invitation of sorts: I could easily acquire an annual shellfish permit along with my resident beach sticker. Now, receiving that mail-in application from the town is the happiest harbinger of spring.
That first season, I was eager to clam but clueless. I spent hours researching rakes, gear, and clam types and habitats. Turns out what you’re clamming for and where you’re clamming matter when it comes to rakes. Did I need the hand-held one with imposing curved tines as long as my forearm? What about the long-handled one with the wide-mouth basket? Or the mashup of garden hoe and giant eagle claw?
I scoured hardware and marine supply stores, even antique and consignment shops, before finding my simple and sturdy Cape-made Ribb rake at Blackbeard’s Bait & Tackle. My sights were set on whatever I could find on the tidal flats of “my” beach at First Encounter, I told the shopkeeper.
“You’ll be going after quahogs,” he said. “They’re close to the surface. Try this.” He handed me a simple eight-toothed steel head with a petite basket resembling a hollowed-out turtle shell, capping a hefty five-foot Northern Ash handle.
It’s early July when I make my first foray. I head to First Encounter an hour after dead low tide. It’s late in the day, but the sun is still high and hot. Sunbathers are scattered on the sandbars with their blankets and books, and children scour the tidal pools for snails and crabs. Here the sky is big and, even on the busiest beach day, one can be both alone and comfortably in the company of others.
I stride past the people on the upper beach and out onto the expanse of fudge-colored flats. I walk in a line diagonal to the shore, heading south and west. Sauntering out to the sandbars at low tide in front of others on the beach feels akin to walking onto a stage. I know no one watches, that everyone is engaged only in their own clusters of family and friends; nonetheless, I feel compelled to walk like I know what I’m doing, and where I’m going. I don’t.
Oysters are being farmed between First Encounter and Boat Meadow, so I imagine the sand bars near the mouth of Bee’s River and in proximity to these aquaculture grants might be a good place to scratch. I scan the surface of the sand — it’s not too gritty, relatively clear of beach detritus and gull guano — then turn to take in the view: Rock Harbor, Boat Meadow, First Encounter, and the other Eastham beaches to the north; Lieutenant and Great islands beyond those; the speck of Pilgrim Monument on the far horizon, open bay, the faint smudge of mainland and wind turbines to the distant west. Yes, if I were a clam, this is a place I’d happily call home.
I lower my wire basket to the ground and plunge my clam rake into the muck. I walk backward slowly, dragging the rake. If I get the tell-tale “ping!” of the teeth hitting a shallowly buried quahog, I scratch in a patch around the first find. Because where one clam beds down, others are sure to be snug. (Experienced clammers may offer better ways of finding quahogs, but my pick-and-plunge method has yet to fail me.)
The first clam is the size of my fist. As is the second, and the third. In no time, I have eight hefty mollusks in my basket. I’ve worked an area twice the size of my diminutive seasonal cottage — raking about 500 square feet. It’s time to move on to the next sandbar. I have a goal of a dozen clams. I aim to make a chowder.
The next pass is slower to yield results. I scratch in neat squares. First from left to right, then from top to bottom. A cross-hatched quilt pattern. I carve black and purple into the brown mud, unearthing ancient tourmaline and feldspar and garnet and the occasional perturbed crab. I am about to settle for 10 clams instead of a dozen when my final four are found. I am smug. And I ache, in the best possible way.
I clam regularly now but have never harvested the weekly 10-quart limit. I’m satisfied with the dozen that an hour’s work typically yields. My technique remains unaltered, though some days I roll more to straight-sided and symmetrical scratch patterns, while on others I wax artistic, carving huge letters into the sand for passing planes to read. PEACE.
Quahogging on the Eastham tidal flats is a meditative way to spend a few hours outdoors at any time of year in the presence of all manner of curious migratory shorebirds and the occasional inquiring tourist.
Before long, you will have walked miles, if only in circles or methodical rows, and mostly backwards. You will have seen clouds roll in from the western horizon or watched a sun the syrupy gold of cling peaches slip into the abyss. You will have witnessed a murmuration of swallows overhead, silent but for the wind of their wings, or a tern with a silverside dinner outmaneuvering a pair of hungry gulls four times its size. You will have emptied your mind of worry and running thought and worked the stresses out of your body and into the earth.
There are dozens of ways to cook quahogs. I scrub and steam mine, then chop them up for chowder. In her 1949 travel book, Cape Cod Summer, Eleanor Early includes a cheeky chowder recipe that has been my go-to:
A proper clam chowder is made rather like fish chowder. You begin with salt pork, and to make it extra good, you end with cream. There is a loathsome concoction with tomatoes in it called Manhattan clam chowder that is actually eaten in Connecticut and in New York. But nobody on Cape Cod would touch the stuff.
I relish the dicing of potatoes and onions, the trying out of salt pork, the slow simmering of cream and clams and crackers. A pot of this feeds my husband, Jon, and me happily for days.
“A good clam chowder is made in just one way and this is it,” wrote Eleanor Early. For nostalgia’s sake, I like turning to her recipe. But I admit I’ve changed it a little over the years, shortcutting milk and cream with half-and-half, supplementing my fresh clams with chopped ones and additional juice, if I come up short, and adding some salt pork back in, for its salty chew.
A dozen large clams
A two-inch cube salt pork
3 small onions, chopped
4 potatoes, cubed small
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
1 quart half-and-half
Salt and pepper
(Also: I keep on hand a 6.5-ounce can of Snow’s chopped clams and an 8-ounce bottle of their clam juice to supplement nature if need be when I make chowder.)
Steam the clams in a pot with a tight-fitting lid and using only a small amount of water. About a half-inch in the bottom of the pot will do, as the clams will release a lot of liquor. When they’re cool enough to handle, remove the meats and chop them (discarding the brownish green stomachs).
Reserve the juices, pouring them through a cheesecloth (and the dregs) so it won’t be gritty.
Slice the salt pork and fry it (“try it out” says Eleanor, as if it were whale blubber) in your soup pot. When it is crisp and crunchy, remove it, but leave the fat in the pot. Add the chopped onions and cook them in the fat until they are golden-yellow. Add the cubed potatoes and two cups of water and simmer until the potatoes are “rather soft and not squashy.”
Make a roux separately by melting the butter, stirring in the flour for a couple of minutes to cook off its raw flavor. Then add the half-and-half to thicken and stir this white sauce into the soup pot. Add some of the salt pork back in, trimmed of fat. Add the canned clams now, if desired.
Spread split Common crackers over the top of the chowder, cover, and simmer very gently.
Before serving, thin with reserved (or bottled) clam juice if the chowder is too thick. Taste for seasoning. Eleanor adds salt and pepper; I do not find it needs any, given the saltiness of the pork and clams.