Clam Up

I have not lived in New England very long, and here’s evidence. Only this weekend did our family, for the first time ever, attempt to steam our own clams.

I assume just about every family in New England steams their own clams, right?

This process was a complete mystery to me. My total experience with steamed clams was getting in line at Woodman’s in Essex, and then when I get to the front of the line, I plunk down my credit card and say, “Steamed clams, please,” and it’s $40 or so for three pounds of them.

But the pandemic lockdown changes everything, and at this point you’re looking for new culinary amusements, or you’ve gone savage, or both; so when Ipswich Shellfish announced a three-day “pop-up” sale, I decided it was time to buy some live clams and kill them.

I got a five-pound bag for $20. Math was my worst subject in school, but it wasn’t difficult for me to calculate the difference between the $4 per pound I was paying for live clams vs. the $13.33 per pound I used to pay to have Woodman’s kill them for me. Little did I know what Woodman’s goes through to kill those clams.

First, according to SimplyRecipes.com, you filter them. You get the sand and grit out of them. Because sand and grit is apparently what they’ve been eating all their lives. And when you eat them, you don’t want to eat the sand and grit. Of course, you don’t filter them yourself. You trick them into filtering themselves, by leaving them in salty water overnight, and changing the water periodically. It’s like having a newborn baby who needs a diaper-changing every few hours, but this smells worse.

After the filtering, I was free. I have no skills or experience in the kitchen, so my wife and I agreed in advance that she would handle the actual cooking part of the process. Thank goodness, because the SimplyRecipes plan calls for you to start with “a tall, large pot”; and forgive me, but as a total rube in the kitchen, I have no idea what qualifies as a “tall, large pot.” Then you place “a steamer rack at the bottom of the pot.” I would have just been standing there with a dazed expression on my face, but my wife immediately recognized this term: “steamer rack.” The only problem is, if you’re not steaming clams every day or so, as I assume a typical New England family is, then even if you know what a steamer rack is, you’re scratching your head and muttering, “Where the heck is that steamer rack?”

Which is complicated by the fact that a 203-year-old house has innumerable nooks and crannies, some of them a century old and still undiscovered by the current owners. Many of these nooks, furthermore, and perhaps even more of the crannies, are located in our kitchen. We have cabinets that disappear around corners, a pantry with a secret passageway, drawers that don’t open unless you don’t want them to, and at least one cupboard which I believe connects to the neighbor’s mudroom.

So my wife set out in search of the steamer rack. In my role as sous-chef, I quietly left the room, to spare her the embarrassment of being stared at. Over the next few minutes, I heard a considerable assortment of clanks, clunks, clangs, and bangs as she removed and replaced various kitchen things. When it finally got noisy enough that I thought she might be in physical danger, I timidly returned to the room. She wasn’t there. Well, part of her was there. But the top parts of her — head, neck, one arm, one shoulder, and most of a collarbone — had disappeared into the floor-level cabinet under the silverware drawer. The part of her I could still see was half-kneeling, half-sprawled on the wide-pine floor, her legs twitching as she grunted and stretched and reached into the catacombs.

“Honey,” I ventured gently, “are you okay?”

From somewhere in the darkness under our house, I heard the echo of her voice, and her words gave me hope that we would indeed dine on steamed clams.

“Found it!”


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he mostly keeps out of the kitchen. Follow Doug at Outsidah.com and NewThing.net.

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