Clams & Clam Digging
As told by Elenore McMullen
Ok, the first thing about clams is you can’t always go out and get a clam, of dig a clam. You have to dig it out of the beach, the muddy sand of the rocks. You find clams throughout the bay here in port Graham, but it has to be during a certain period of a tide. Usually from a -3 foot to a -4 onto a -5 foot. You could probably find them at a -2 foot, but you would find very few and really have to work to find them!
Throughout the bay here, you could find various types of butter clams. Everybody refers to the clams (as found in the bay) as butter clams. There’s the black clam about 4”x” in size in Duncan Slough area and on up to the bay. The ones they have in various parts of the bay, (in small coves) are the little white clams almost identical to the black ones, only the shell is white. You find as you go out past the end of the air strip here, facing the west side if the of the bay, the smaller (approximately2”x3” size) amongst the rocks But you’re working really hard there and so are you across the bay.
I experimented one time on a -4 foot tide in the spring time. I went from below Annie Fomin’s, there out on to A.C. Point and spot dug here and there and allowed myself time for the tide change and I found clams everywhere! They were hard to dig, (cause you had to dig amongst the rocks) .out around A.C. Point, around Frank Blackburn’s, you find a big white clam. Again it’s a little harder digging. Beyond the old cannery there, right below the old outhouse, (I use that as a landmark), you find the small butter clams, (the type you would like to bake in the oven). Out on the island and throughout the bay, there’s other various types of clams.
Now I’m gonna talk about the different types. There’s cockles which everybody likes very well boiled. You can grind them up and make them into a chowder like anything else or fry’em. Then we have what a lot of people call the Aleut oyster, it’s the old maids we call’em (ucinguruaqs). They have big long necks, they are very good to eat. A lot of people discard them, because they aren’t very pretty and attractive like our cockles and clams are. The old maids, they’re plentiful, but they are to eat! They bake’em in the oven, apply salt and pepper to them and butter.
Then we have the red clams. You find these up beyond Duncan Slough up towards the bay there, and across in the other side of the bay about the same distance (up and then around). When you open the shell, it is red (kind of redish maroon color), they’re soft-shelled, thinner shell than a regular clam. When you open them up, they’re just like a great big cockle in there. They taste almost like a cockle (they’re pretty good) and you cook them just like you would a cockle. Many people throw them away because of their color, they think they’re no-good, cause they’re red but when you cook’em they turn white. Then across the inlet or up the inlet we find razor clams here in the village, but the fishermen go up the inlet or even fly to get them.
Cockles- you find very few of them. A few years ago we had a very bad red tide and it killed off most of our cockles and they are regenerating again. I mentioned the “red Tide”. Red tides, we have every so often, it doesn’t happen yearly. It’s quite doesn’t visible and usually there’s warnings out about that. This fall I saw a red tide in the bay and it lasted only for about six hours and it was gone. I’ve been careful about going out and getting clams and muscles. Muscles can be used in the same manner as clams, make a chowder out of them of just steam them.
You have to use clams when they are alive, you can’t use a dead clam and cook it, cause of the danger spoilage (food poison). That poison could cause death of clams aren’t properly cared for. Clams are like crabs. If the animal isn’t alive discard it. Use it up before this happens. Use it while it’s alive. A good way to keep clams alive is put’em in a gunny sack, tie’em off the dock where the tide will keep’em alive, or else off your skiff if your skiff remains in the water, or take a bucket of salt water home and pour salt water over’em. A good way for cleaning out your clams, or getting the sand out- I take my clams home, and pour salt water over them from the ocean and sprinkle a little corn meal, it gets rid of all that green junk in their intestines.
Clams cook very quickly, very easily. There’s very little work in the preparation of them, only in the getting of the clam, digging it out of the beach and getting it home.
There’s various ways of cooking clams. We’ll talk about a very quick meal to fix- chowder, clam chowder or clam soup as a lot of people call it.
Clam chowder is really very simple. For a family of five, sometimes all we need are five big clams or six of those big ones. Sometimes, if I were digging at A.C. Point you would almost need a whole bucket (it takes that many cause they’re so small). After that you get’em clean. Then I usually grind these up and I have my water boiling, I use probably about a quart of water. Put my bacon and onions in the skillet and fry it, not till it’s crisp, just till the fat dissolves from the bacon. The onion is kind of glassy not till it’s burn’t. Then I add these and some of the bacon drippings to the chowder (soup). Then I chop one or two potatoes, my family doesn’t like potatoes and add to the soup. Then I add rice, (now everybody likes rice in my family so I add a little more rice than others), probably about a quarter cup of rice to that. Let that simmer, add salt and pepper. Skim off the foamy top. Some people add celery and a little bit of spaghetti to make it kind of different and pretty (I don’t normally do that). Then add clams. It just takes a few minutes for the clams to cook, but you have to wait for the rice and potatoes to be done. After that I remove it from the heat and then I add a whole can of evaporated milk before I put it on the table the canned milk really makes it nice and rich. After you have eaten that and properly refrigerated it, when you heat it up, it tasted better the next day. I usually freeze my left over chowder. You have to be careful of refrigerating because of the milk, it spoils very quickly. There’s many ways you can fix clams! You can make’em into fritters and you can do almost the same thing with cockles. The cockles are so scarce that I never like to use’em! Clam fritters, I usually take about a quart to a half gallon if clams, (depending on the size of your family), and grind these up with a grinder (they can be either fresh of frozen). Then I take two eggs and beat’em up with a fork, add them to the clams and then I take cracker meal, (I take my own saltine crackers), and crush’em with a rolling pin, (one whole package from the box, and add to the clams. Then I add salt and pepper, it’s still kind of gooey and you wonder how you’re gonna get that in the pan? I add a little grease in the skillet, (you don’t need a whole lot of it), and heat it up, (this takes very little time), and drop a little by spoonfuls into the skillet and flatten them out. The only thing you have to worry about is that little bits of cracker and clams will fly and splatter and burn you. If you have a wire screen to use as a cover it would help. It is very simple and very tasty. I got this recipe from Ollie, you remember Ollie, he used to be the cook at the cannery. Another way to make fritters is instead of using cracker crumbs, use flour. You can try yourself and see what you like best. Flour used in fritters is a stiffer dough and I don’t thing it’s as tasty as crackers are. It doesn’t take very long, you just brown it on one side and then on the other side and it’s done. Clams take very little time to cook. Like if you were going to steam or bake your clams in the oven, shell. You wanna make sure that the clams aren’t full of sand, you won’t to go through the process I showed you a while back, by soaking’em in salt water maybe adding a little corn meal in just soaking’em in salt water. You don’t want to use fresh water, that’ll kill’em, they’re not used to fresh water, they’re used to salt water.
Ok, if you wanted to steam’em, you just take your clams, place them in the oven, (in a baking dish), and in less than an hour you’ll have your steamed or baked clams. You can take some lemon and (or) melted butter and pour over them and salt and pepper and eat’em just right out of the shell. Or, you could take your clam, split it in half and add your butter, salt and pepper and stick’em in the oven and bake’em. There again you can use your own judgment. Some people sprinkle a little chives over’em while they are baking in the oven. Another thing is, you can take’em and put then in a cooking pan, (one you make soup in). Put just a little bit of water in the pan and steam them. I usually take the little tiny ones and do that to’em (you have to be careful with the sand again). It just takes a few minutes, when the clam opens up its done. The longer you cook’em the tougher they get.
Oh! You can fry clams. Another good way that I know that people are using, is just cleaning’em. After that, I usually dip’em in egg that’s been beat’em, (I have my skillet warmed with fat, about a quarter cup of oil). Then roll in a little bit o corn meal. I have in another dish a little flour. I roll it in that. Then again it doesn’t take very long. Just to what ever brown you want, whether dark or light. The longer you cook them, the chewier they are gonna get. Salt pepper them right after you put them in the skillet.
Another way is to take your clam and chop’em up on maybe 1”x 1” pieces and put it in your skillet and slowly simmer it in a little bit of water, (not grease but water). It takes less than 20 minutes to let that cook down. Then you make a milk gravy or a brown gravy (which ever you like) and add that to your clams. Serve that over rice or you could add a little curry powder and salt and pepper to that. Man does that taste good. Ok, maybe we should talk about cleaning clams.
Not everybody knows how to clean a clam, I’m really no expert either. I learned the hard way, I got my finger stuck in one before. The important thing is taking your clam, usually on the clam, there’s that hinge, if you want to call it that, that’s on the small part of the clam. I take that in the palm of my hand and usually have a good strong paring knife, (you don’t want one that’ll bend easy, you want one that is strong). I put that paring knife on the side where the opening is, where the clam’s side of that, on both sides. You don’t want to cut through the middle, then you’ll ruin the clam. That cuts the muscle. Right away you see the clam open just a little. A lot of times my children try to help me, and boy- I have a mutilated clam, I tell you! Some people don’t like the tummy or, (whatever that is), the bag, a lot of people throw that away. But I find that if I split that down the middle and remove the green stuff I can still use that without it tasting if seaweed. Also split the neck down the middle cause you wanna get the sand out of the clam (the neck). The important thing about clans make sure that they’re alive when you use and that you remove the sand and properly refrigerate or freeze them after it’s been cleaned or cooked, specially in a chowder.
Sometimes if you like smoked clams or cockles, you can string them on a piece of wire, put’em in the smokehouse for a little while. Then boil’em. They’re really good. (you’ll barely keep your eyes open when eating them). My grandparents used to preserve that clams that way, so they could keep them longer, especially cockles. They had’em strung out dried like dried fish. Then you just boil’em and that would replace the water in’em.