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Meet the Humble Clam That's a Pacific Northwest Icon

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When I first moved to Seattle in the 1980s, I kept hearing about a wonderful and strange creature, the Pacific razor clam, spoken about in almost mythic terms. Curious about the fuss, I bought a shellfish license for a few dollars and drove to Copalis beach on the Pacific Ocean seashore to investigate. The low tide was early the next morning, so I woke before dawn and walked to the beach. To my surprise, when I crested the final dune and arrived at the shore, I found hundreds of people lined up in front of the ocean in the darkness, armed with buckets, nets, narrow-bladed shovels, and a three-foot-long tube that resembled a stovepipe with handles. They had lanterns and headlamps that bobbed up and down the beach like fireflies.

I had only a regular garden shovel and a flashlight, but we were all there searching for the same buried treasure: a large and supremely tasty bivalve about the size of your hand.

Digging for buried treasure in the surf. Photos by David Berger

No offense to the appearance of the clam’s similarly named East Coast cousin, but I discovered the Pacific razor clam, Siliqua patula, is an Art Deco masterpiece. It has a golden, streamlined shell ranging in shades from tan to olive, and is so shiny it looks like it’s been lacquered. As its name implies, the Pacific razor clam thrives on the wave-swept beaches of the West coast, most abundantly in Oregon, Washington, and southern Alaska.

The clam’s foot is remarkably powerful compared to other clams—these are clams you have to chase. They move deeper into the sand about as fast as you can dig for them, especially in wet soft sand. You have to dig quick. How you catch them depends on what tool you are using, shovel or tube, and whether you are digging in the surf zone or the upper beach. But it’s always person against clam, one clam at a time, mano a mano. The reward for all the exertion is a bucket full of treats. For many, including myself, a year is not complete without a ritualistic trip (or several) in quest of the delicacy.

After harvesting, folks blanch the clams in boiling water to clean and separate the animal from the shell. Next, they remove the large stomach and gills with small scissors, cut the animal in half, and rinse to remove any sand. They are rewarded with two to three ounces of beautiful, ivory-colored meat, which most simply bread and fry, sauté in butter and oil, or make into chowder. Why mess with the sweet, distinctive flavor?

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Over time, eating the clams wasn’t enough. I began to wonder about these creatures, so different from myself and other mammals, which turned into my latest book, Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest. Early pioneers living near the coast depended on razor clams as a food source, as did the local Native American tribes who also used them for trade. Around 1900, entrepreneur Peter Halferty discovered how to can razor clams, thus launching a new, wildly popular industry. Soon, most every hamlet near a razor clam beach had a cannery, or several, and operations extended up to Alaska.

After WWII, the canning industry died out due to competition from cheaper canned clams from the East coast and Asia, as well as the use of razor clams as bait for catching Dungeness crabs; but the recreational fishery continued to grow. Today, razor clamming attracts tens of thousands to the coast annually. Many consider it their favorite outdoor activity, and pursue it well into old age. It is not unusual to read in an obituary that so and so loved to razor clam and took pride in always getting a limit, that is, always catching the maximum number of clams allowed per trip.

(Left) In the 1960s, a model posed with a wood razor clam sculpture, an icon of the community. (Right) Open clams waiting to be devoured. Photos by Aberdeen Museum of History, David Berger

While the Northwest is famous for shellfish—oysters, hardshell clams, mussels and geoducks among them—most of these are farm-raised. Pacific razor clams, by contrast, are a wild food. Foragers must grab a shovel or tube and face the elements, which is partly why the clams are only occasionally available at the seafood counter or in restaurants, even in their home turf, the Northwest.

During my first clam hunt all those decades ago, I finally caught one after an exhausting effort of digging many, many holes. Yes, only one. It takes a while to get into the ancient rhythms of the hunt. I sautéed it, and it tasted remarkable.

David Berger has contributed to Pacific Magazine, and is former art critic for the Seattle Times. He is a recipient of a Metcalf Fellowship for Marine and Environmental Reporting, and lives in Seattle. When not writing or razor clamming, he is also a visual artist.

Tags: Pacific Northwest, Clam, Seafood, Long Reads, Culture, Books