07/19/2010 01:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

69 Clams (PHOTOS)

I rented a house on Block Island with some friends a couple of weeks ago, and the days leading up to our departure were punctuated with brief, animated phone calls. We didn't talk about the beach, how much fun our respective children would have, or what we should bring. We talked clams.

"Amazon's got a clam rake," C. Russell Muth would report to me. "We could have it here tomorrow. No, it's sold out. Wait. Another. Here's one for 27 bucks. Should we get it?"

I had no idea. I've spent enough time around the water to know, vaguely, that you tong? and rake for bivalves, but I had never put my hands on a clam rake. I aimed to change that. We wondered if we should head out ahead of our families. We could leave at 3 AM, like scouts, so we could make the drive and still get on the very first ferry of the day. That way, we could get to the licensing station in time to catch low tide. We didn't go that far, but digging for clams had become our raison d'etre. We had the fever.

We'd rented a great old place with a big sloping yard and a little vineyard, and our landlord gave us a tour when we arrived.

One of us asked, feigning nonchalance, how the clamming was.

He went off like a firecracker and told us that the Great Salt Pond had been well seeded, that they'd put in hundreds of bushels. This quickly turned to a homespun story of his battles with the (former) clam warden, who drove around the island with Florida license plates on his car and harassed locals, making them show their identification multiple times and making a pain of himself. (The story spun well out of control, with the two of them eventually facing some sort of authority figure, after one chased the other with a clam rake.)

Our landlord put forth the proclamation that the whole reason people come to the island at all is to clam and to ride mopeds. "These are things you can't do anywhere else in America."

This is patently untrue, not to mention a little strange, as assertions go, but we nodded along. Who were we to talk?

We got out licenses, as one must, from the Harbormaster, who works in a little shack on the pier near the restaurant called The Oar. (The Oar is great for lobster rolls and beer and a view of the harbor.) For a week-long license you need an ID and twenty bucks. They give you a license with a photo and a handy measuring tool that tells you if the clam you've found is of legal size. (The tool is the size of a credit card, with a smaller rectangle cut out of it. If the clam can fit through the hole, you've got to put it back.) There is a shop right next to the Harbormaster's shack that sells sundries and clam rakes and boating needs. The shop was closed for lunch when we got there, so Russell and I sat in The Oar and drank an IPA amidst the maritime clutter, eyeing the door of the shop and bouncing our knees.

We were ready to go. When they re-opened, we bought a big rake for $48, and a couple of cheap gear bags to hold clams. It didn't feel like enough. I wanted a moment like the British explorer and writer Peter Fleming must have had, I wanted to be outfitted. I settled for buying toys for the kids: Bocce Ball and sand shovels and a pail.

Mine may seem like an unrealistic enthusiasm for the digging of clams, but there's something about it that grabs you. That's why the Great Salt Pond was practically devoid of clams as long ago as 1912, when the Hartford paper The Day reported:

"The freezing of the surface of the flats in such a winter as last and its going to sea along with the ice in the spring, changes in configuration of the flats due to storms and freshets, the pollution of harbor and river mouth waters by sewage, factory refuse, and so on; all these have their effect in lowering the clam supply, but the effect is comparatively slight. It is the constant digging and digging and the taking of clams of any size that denudes the beds."

Wait for low tide. You want to be able to walk out into the water, and you have more access if the tide is out.

"Look for dark, sandy areas," Russell told me, moving into his natural role as the guide. "Avoid those high shelly areas." There are patches of dark sand under the water in the Great Salt Pond, and it did indeed seem that there were more clams hiding there.

I posited that perhaps this was because the black absorbed heat, and the burrows would be warmer, but my suggestion was met only with the bemused stare of the expert humoring the newbie and a muttered "sure."

My guide wanted me to stop it with the conjecture and get down to digging. For digging is key.

You have to work pretty hard to get clams, it turns out. You've got a big, toothy implement, this clam rake thing that is basically a sharp metal basket, and you stand waist deep in water and push it into the sand as far as it will go and then drag and tilt and struggle, as if you were digging potatoes. Digging potatoes is hard work, digging potatoes that grow under water is doubly so. Never mind the fact that the clams are not arranged in beds or rows. On top of that, a fair amount of what you do find has already been consumed by some other predator.

It's hard, but it's mesmerizing. The current laps at you, you rock with it, your feet alternately sink into the sandy bottom or get torn and cut by scattered shells and rocks.

"Dig deeper," cried Russell, "deeper than you think you have to. And go back over patches. Go back over what you've raked after you've stirred it up."

The sun warms the back of your neck and the sea air fills your lungs.
It's beautiful stuff.

We had a six pack of Narragansett beer stashed on the shore, and we both deemed it a key ingredient to the experience.

Over the course of ten man hours, give or take, the majority of which were certainly Russell's, we harvested 69 clams. If one was to try to survive on clams dug out of the Great Salt Pond, one would fail. A clam has about 10 calories, if it's of medium size (which it will be if you keep it, thanks to the Harbormaster's handy piece of aluminum that measures them). 690 calories. I can't find a calorie computer online that includes clam digging, but I liken it to shoveling snow, and one calculator told me that if I shoveled snow for ten hours, I'd burn 7,176 calories. A bad deal, for sure.

69 Clams, however, is a pretty good thing to have in the fridge.

We'd been eating lobsters all weekend, and I'd been chucking their carcasses into a stock pot with parsley and onions and making a broth.

We made risotto with the broth, using red peppers and onions.

To make my risotto, I diced one medium onion and one red pepper, and sweated those over a medium heat in a generous amount of olive oil.

When the onions turned translucent I added my rice, and cooked that in the oil as well, until all was coated and it seemed hot. I began adding hot stock and stirring. Roughly, the measure for risotto (or, least, the measure for how much stock you should have on hand) is one to three. Two cups of rice will serve four well, and you need six cups of stock at hand, in a pan, below or at a simmer. You add, you stir, you add more and you stir more. Every time I think I have it figured out, I either run out of stock (which is no big deal, use water) or I have stock left over (equally fine, put it in the fridge).

Once the risotto had stabilized (it starts absorbing liquid less quickly as it cooks, and you get to a point where you still have to stir and add, but you can do something else as well), I steamed the clams. We had a lot of them, so I set up a big pot with a steamer basket.

I rendered some strips of wonderful Italian, cured and smoked speck in the bottom of the big pot, and tossed in some garlic, then put in half a cup of white wine and half a cup of lobster stock. I lowered the steamed basket full of clams over the mix, and covered it.

The clams are done when they are open, about 10 minutes. Mix them around a couple of times so they heat evenly.. I turned them out into a bowl, looked to see if any hadn't opened (they were dead or they've spoiled -- if the clam doesn't open, don't eat it), and dumped the mixture of lobster stock, white wine, speck, and clam liquor over them.

I spooned a generous heap of risotto on each plate and topped it with clams, covering the whole with broth and parsley.

Monitor salt levels throughout the cooking. Clams are salty, speck is salty -- don't go too far in seasoning the dish. One can always add salt, but it's hard to take it away.

We ate this feast on our last night on the island. Don't try it before; wait until you've saved up lobster carcasses and you've got a fridge full of clams, then put the kids to bed and let the corks fly.

Digging For And Preparing Clams
Digging For And Preparing Clams

Photos by Max Watman