purple varnish clam-digging


We went clam-digging this morning with our local Slow Food chapter in Siletz Bay on the north Oregon coast. Poor Retrogrouch (his choice of nickname) was not happy about throwing down cold and wet in the early morning, and I was feeling a rather vile case of nausea because of the car ride and an upset tummy, so we weren’t the friendliest companions, but the Slow Food Willamette Valley Convivium was indeed convivial, and our guide showed us how to get our limit (36 apiece) of the taste-invasion invasive species nuttallia obscurata, or purple varnish clam.

The purple varnish clam was introduced on Oregon beaches from Japan, they say, in the 1990s. It is 2-3 inches in diameter, flat, has a soft, thin shell that peels a bit (hence, varnish) and is brownish-mahogany on the outside and purple on the inside. It’s a pretty little creature, and plentiful, since it is doing its devious business invading the coast. Supposedly, they’re almost as delicious as razor clams.

dscf6860.jpgHere are some things you might not know about clam-digging, try as you google might. The people who write information about such things are usually old, seasoned men, so they leave out crucial information for those of us who have less seasoning and the non-mutant gender.

If you decide to go clamming in Oregon, you’ll need a license, and it will cost you $6.50, but each person in your party needs to show their face to the licensing folks, so don’t think you can you pick up licenses for the whole party. They have licenses (and apparently rental tools) at various locations along the coast, and at [G. I.] Joe’s in Eugene.

Buy a clamming shovel (see pics), which has more flexibility than a clam tube from what I can tell. I think that if you’re digging other kinds of clams, such as the fast-moving razor, this advice might change, but it’s still a good idea to have a long, narrow shovel, especially if you’re only going to get one tool.

dscf6851.jpgThere’s no “assisted clamming,” which is really a stupid rule. It means that two people can’t help each other dig the same hole and put clams in the same bag/bucket. So you need a bag/bucket for each person. It’s OK to share the same digging tool, as long as you dig separate holes on your own.

They sell small mesh drawstring laundry bags at the dollar store, or, at the four-dollar store (i.e., Walmart). The four-dollar version is a real clamming bag, which resembles the laundry bag but has an approx. 8-in. diameter metal circle that keeps the mouth of the bag open, and a clip that you can use to clip the bag to your belt so you don’t lose it in, say, a sneaker wave. I think mesh bags are the way to go, much easier to use than a bucket, especially if you have to bring one for each member of your family.

I am very, very thankful I brought a small cooler with a couple of ice packs thrown in and some extra plastic bags. We put the sandy, full mesh bags of clams in a plastic bag, then in the cooler. No sand anywhere, and we didn’t worry about the clams in the car. And we’re really glad we had an extra garbage bag for our wet, sandy clothes.

dscf6853.jpgOur friendly guide, Bill Lackner, distributed literature that said that “rubber gloves are optional.” Yeah, if you don’t mind breaking a nail or two (which I did). I located one nitrile garden glove, but a leftie, so I was only half-protected. I think, actually, that nitrile garden gloves are perfect for clamming, since you still can feel with the tips of your fingers. It helps when you’re digging down into the hole if you can feel the clams. Digging with your bare hands makes for some mighty cold hands, and the saltwater did a number on my skin. Beware.

If you have waterproof pants or waders, by all means bring them, because you’ll get wet from your knees down (and your elbows down).

I’m purging the clams now in saltwater with a couple of cloves of garlic. (Edited to add:  here’s how they looked and tasted!)