10 August 2013

Going Clamming

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the best kept secrets in the fashionable Hamptons is a beautiful peninsula called Gerard Drive, a narrow road winding its way between the wetlands of Accabonac Harbor and the open expanse of Gardiners Bay. On a clear day, it looks as if you could throw a stone to Gardiners Island, the private domain on which they say the pirate Blackbeard buried his treasure. The Gardiner of the day caught him at it, captured and sent him off to England to be hanged, while the family has been eating off the buccaneer’s gold plates to this day. Or so they say.

If you meet any oldtimers while you’re getting your shellfish permit at the Town Clerk’s office in East Hampton, they won’t tell you where to find the shellfish. But if you run or walk your dog or bike or rollerblade on Gerard Drive, you can’t help seeing clammers, sometimes almost dryshod on the mud flats at low tide and sometimes waist deep and balancing precariously as they reach into the mud under their feet for the makings of a classic chowder. It looks so easy....

I discovered the hard way, ie, by becoming eligible for Medicare one day at a time, that shellfish permits are actually permanent and free to seniors. (You spring chickens will have to get one every year and pay a fee for it.) I kept meaning to go and use it, along with the clam gauge that indicates when a clam is too small to keep legally. But the tide table for Accabonac Harbor is another well kept secret, and since they built dug a channel, letting water from the bay go in and out more easily at a point about a mile from the mouth of the harbor (between the tip of Gerard Drive and the delightfully named Louse Point), the mud flats only get uncovered when low tide is very low indeed.

I run three miles along that drive every day I can when I’m out there. The air is filled with birdsong, wildflowers abound, deer and rabbits dart across the road, and the sparkling air and glinting water demonstrate why artists rave about the East Hampton light. I’m always looking for clues to that extra-low tide, and one day last year, during a three-day stretch of absolutely perfect weather, I found it. Ospreys and herring gulls have no trouble catching seafood, so why should I? I gathered up my gear and permit (couldn’t find the clam gauge) and made ready to hunt the wild clam.

Now came the hard part: getting my hubby to come with me. His idea of paradise is a big chair, an open window with the breeze blowing through it, and a good book. Well, his real idea of paradise is the streets of New York City. But he was there, and I wasn’t letting him off. I had to share the fun, didn’t I? And what are husbands for if not to carry the rake, the bucket, and, one hopes, the clams?

Alas, the clams did not cooperate. We spent a couple of hours stooped over and burrowing in the muck with toes and fingernails. Not a clam. A couple stationed maybe fifty yards from us were literally raking them in. “This is a good spot!” the woman kept exclaiming. Unfortunately, clam etiquette forbids poaching on someone else’s spot. But I kept inching closer. A couple of young women came splashing out, politely avoided the first couple’s spot, and quickly found another that yielded not only clams but a large oyster and a crab or two.

My husband was not a happy clammer. Nor was I—but I didn’t want to go home without clams. It happens that our favorite gourmet farm market, whose clam chowder is a perfect 10, didn’t make it at all last season, and we were both feeling chowder deprived. You need about three dozen good sized clams to make a pot of chowder. That wasn’t happening. Finally, the two young women kindly offered to share their spot. Within minutes, my husband got a clam. One. To make a long story short, we ended up with half a dozen clams, two medium-sized and the other four—well, let’s say it’s just as well we couldn’t find our clam gauge and that the Marine Patrol didn’t happen to come along.

Did I make clam chowder? You betcha. It was kind of like the stone soup of folklore—putting a big nothing in the pot and adding all the other ingredients. But was it good? It was delicious.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog Mystery Lovers Kitchen.


  1. Summers in Maine, when I was a kid, we used to gather mussels off the rocks (easier than clams) when the tide went out, and steam them. Foraging is very cool. Better luck finding the sweet spot next time.

  2. Liz, your column takes me back to my beginnings on Long Island. We caught crab off the pier in Port Jefferson, took them home and cooked them in boiling water. No trimmings. I can still taste them. Delish!!

  3. Chowder Manhattan style or New England?


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