gone fishin’ (and thank you)

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Red Rocks marine reserve south of Port Orford

I guess I’ve put it off long enough. My house is being sold, my cookbooks are in boxes, my black raspberries are picked for the last time, my pickle jars are washed, and my heart is struggling with goodbyes. I’m leaving you, Eugene.

I decided a couple years ago that it was time to take the hard next step in my journey to becoming a full-time writer.

But where should I base myself, thought I, and how should I do it?

Trying to answer that took me many different places. If you’ve never been hit by the thunderbolts of fate that crumble your life — divorce from a 20-year relationship, losing your job and home you loved, suffering disability from a serious car accident — you may not understand this.  Rebuilding becomes a Choose Your Own Adventure.

Do you settle into the old patterns, especially if they are good?

Though it’s not perfect, I mused, I liked my life in academia. I teach amazing classes and am surrounded by some pretty fantastic people. Until the landslide happened, I had an extremely active research and conference travel schedule, and I was on track with my book. I pretty much stopped the academic publishing when I was laid up the first summer of the disaster with a broken leg, since Academia is an abusive, narcissistic lover that needs attention and a masochistic attachment that I just wasn’t able to devote to it. (Edited to add, since I am masochistic enough: let the record state that I did finish several articles, haha!  One on the history of how libraries handled sexual material, which was published in a groundbreaking (in the world of Porn Studies, that is) collection by Duke University Press; a review essay for Gastronomica I hilariously tried and failed to edit after my emergency surgery (thanks a zillion to Darra Goldstein for her patience); and another essay on years of research on a singular and important unknown gay writer, Samuel Steward, on the way from Ohio University Press, most likely.)

But as I convalesced, I started freelancing more and more, and really loved it.  Since I write and research and publish all the time, I figured, I could easily switch back tracks and start publishing even more pieces valued by the Academy…if I had to.  And my personal life would improve, I thought.  I had had a partner with a similar background and values to mine, and we remained friendly after our separation, so I wasn’t wholly embittered by men. I absolutely loved my garden and little cottage. I could easily see getting another professor job, preferably on the tenure track, and another man with a similar background and having a perfectly good life.  A better life. Lessons learned, personal growth, blah blah blah, etc.

But there was another option that whispered to me, then grew increasingly louder and more adamant.

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Velella velella, Florence

Or do you to ride the wave of that sea change and let the prevailing winds blow you into some new harbor? I mean, you might wash up on a beach like driftwood or a dead sea lion or velella velella, but you might actually make a difference and be even happier.

So instead of wallowing in grief or being angry at the people who took away my life (though there WAS a lot of that), I ultimately decided to let karma take its course and not to mourn the life that was taken from me.  To let the current transport me somewhere else. We really don’t have a choice anyway, I concluded, and I’m kind of lazy, so I might as well choose to go along for whatever ride the universe was planning for me.

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Newport Aquarium

Annoyingly, I didn’t get any clear signs from the universe that it actually had a plan. For a lady who is not in the least bit spontaneous and pretty much lives a few years down the line, I found this absolutely unpleasant. Rude, in fact. I was ready to move on but the universe wasn’t ready to move me. So I ignored the growing frustrations with my seeming non-action from friends and family, and choked back my own rage at failing every single day to come up with a plan, and I continued patiently casting about for possibilities. (If this sounds at all vain and accusatory, I apologize, but I was FAR MORE sick of my inaction than you were, I promise. Inaction took up all my time and energy and the light of my life for years, and it was a miserable BFF.)

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Albacore and chips at Luna Sea, Yachats
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Salal at Cape Blanco

For a long time, I thought I’d live in a small building on a farm near Portland so I could continue my writing and research on agricultural changes in the Willamette Valley, but start hanging with Portland people. I briefly flirted with moving to Scandinavia and researching the idea of “north” à la Glenn Gould, but with more food…hopefully with the save haven of a study abroad program. I had almost convinced myself that I was moving to Haarlem, a small town on the coast near Amsterdam, to study Dutch still lifes, and I toy with the idea of moving to Germany or Ireland. I briefly considered moving back to my hometown of Detroit to engage myself with urban farming. I mulled over Yachats, Tillamook, Scio, Manzanita, Clatskanie, Gaston. All of these lives would have been fun and rewarding.

But Port Orford was the only one that reached out to me with a yes, and said, “not only will I welcome you, but you have no idea how strange and wonderful I am, Jennifer Burns Bright, and I’m going work with you to make your life, and hopefully the lives of others, better!”

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I was sold. I like a guy with a can-do attitude.

Port Orford is a tiny, sleepy town on the Southern Oregon coast.  It is one of the most fascinating places I’ve been in decades of traveling all over Oregon and the world. I cannot wait to share it with you.

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The port in Port Orford from Battle Rock beach.

I discovered the town almost by accident a few months ago. As many of you know, I’ve been doing more travel writing and have done quite a few pieces on the Central and Oregon coast, but it had been many years since I ventured southward, and then, only to Bandon. So I suggested to my editor that I go check out some of the more southern towns to see what was going on, and asked friends where they stayed down there. Someone (Brendan at Belly, so blame him) suggested I stay in the cabins at Cape Blanco, so I did. I fell in love immediately with the place, and when I discovered they had some of the most beautiful and diverse beaches I’ve seen anywhere, I started looking into some of the connections I might make with writing about Oregon seafood, long an interest of mine.

Well, it turns out that the town can help me learn.  There’s the Port Orford Sustainable Seafood alliance, where fishermen are bringing local seafood and raising awareness about marine issues through a coalition of partners affiliated with an amazing non-profit, the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, who work on marine research and advocacy.  I did a couple of brief interviews of the folks there, and realized how little I – as a food writer and lover of seafood and the Oregon coast – actually knew about the coast.  Like this:

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What does it mean to catch a belt fish wild?  How is it caught?  And by whom?  And does “Product of China” mean a fish caught in China?  And how does it end up in Atlanta, where this picture was taken?  I can’t answer these questions, and I think they should be answered.

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Mouth of the Sixes River, Cape Blanco

I’ve always loved the coast, but this will give me the ability to really understand what it’s like to live and make a living on the coast in uncertain times.   The town is situated 60 miles north of the California border and 27 miles south of Bandon in the so-called State of Jefferson on a wild and remote coast, but for a travel and food writer it is a good place to learn about the relationships between states and the federal government and the industrial pressures on food systems and conservation in both California and Oregon.   My goal is to eventually specialize in coastal writing writ large, integrating environmental and commercial interests in managing the marine life and waterways that are so crucial to our country and planet.

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Fish sculpture made from found ocean debris, Washed Ashore Project, Bandon
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Rogue brewpub in Astoria

Early reviews of my decision are in. Inevitably, I’ll hear three things: “Oh, that’s my favorite beach town in Oregon!” and “Why in the heck would you move there?” and “Are you sure you can live in such a small town?” And I answer “Mine, too” and “see below” and “nope, but I won’t know ‘til I try it.”

And the rest of the story is yet to be written.

I’ll still be teaching Food Studies courses at UO next year in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Humanities Program to fund the start up of this project, so it’s not a complete break. (Yes, the commute will be difficult but I’ll be fine.)  I’m also managing the culinary events for the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival this year, as I have mentioned and will mention again and again, so you’ll be hearing from me about that.

But other than one more post to announce my new website, where I’ll be chronicling the continuing adventures of a big small town girl in an even smaller town, I’m drawing the curtains closed on this small blog.

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Judging Iron Chef Eugene 2015 with emcee Chef Clive and fellow judge Jeff Gardner, who makes delicious local pasta
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Forcing my COLT 305: New Farmers Movement cultural studies class students to do manual labor at the UO Urban Farm.

Culinaria Eugenius was the vehicle by which I learned about this town I love and its people. Almost 930 posts later, I can safely say it’s been worth it.  Eugene has changed so much, and I am so honored to have been part of the group that helped spread the word about innovations in our food system: agricultural advances and great strides ahead in our restaurant culture. There are Facebook groups and local food magazines and a much better networking system that connects local food to people who want to eat it.  I know Eugene will keep doing wonderful work and others will write all about it and I will be reading.

So it’s not really a goodbye, since Eugene is such a huge part of me (plus, I need to come here to buy weird groceries). It’s just a new adventure, and one I hope to share with you.

culinaria eugenius on the coast: intertidal zone

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Pacific Oyster Co., Bay City.
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Lincoln City clammer.
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Cliffhanging blackberries at Oswald West State Park
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Lincoln City historic district.
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Fisherwoman at Hug Point Beach.

Like nearly every other citizen of our great state of Oregon, I made my way to the coast over the weekend.  I know this is not hyperbole, because I couldn’t find a single vacant camp site from Seaside to Florence on Saturday night.

But for the one lame child who had to stay behind while the Pied Piper pulled the rest of us all out to the cliffs, here’s what went down.

I had my fill of creamy summer local oysters, supping them raw at Shucker’s Oyster Bar in Lincoln City; raw and sandy at Pacific Oyster in Bay City; and fried and not very good in Newport upon learning the film I had been envisioning, Steamed Ginger Oysters at the Noodle Café, would be delayed due to it being the restaurant’s night off.   Oh well.

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Seaside taffy shop and Icarus, prohibited.

IMG_5259I ate gross taffy at the human zoo they call Seaside, including flavors called Molasses Mint, Black Widow (licorice and redhots), and Ocean (which stained my tongue dark blue and freshened my breath with peppermint).  Also had a good bowl of pho, surprisingly, on The Prom.  Fleeing the floaters and the sinkers, I peered in the windows like a creeper at Seaside High School, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost of James Beard, who held cooking classes there back in the day.

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Ripe salmonberries, Oswald West State Park.

On hikes, I snacked on the first blackberries of the season; salmonberries, which are like many tender young things much prettier than they taste; and thimbleberries, who do redheads proud.  Hey, and I felt kind of pleased, too, that I am finally Oregonian enough to recognize many of the edible plants that hug the waterways.

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Peace Crops Farm girly girl potatoes, Manzanita farmers market.

Fate smiled upon me because I saved a beached anchovy’s life, tossing it back into the sea.  It presented me with a couple of days in Nehalem and Manzanita, exploring the coastal communities there.  We take for granted our extensive farmers market system in Eugene, so it’s invigorating to see the vibrant buzz of a new farmers market in a small community.  I chatted with the Master Gardeners and the crepe makers at the market, making off with a pint of boysenberries, and visited the folks who own and run R-evolution Gardens, who founded said farmers market a few years ago.

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Nehalem, which is so f#%$&^ gorgeous I can’t even stand it.

R-evolution Gardens is an organic, off-grid farm in Nehalem producing lovely sound vegetables and, from what it looks like, a future herbal medicine line.  An entire drying table of calendula reminded me of little petals of the sun being preserved for winter, and in a way, it was. On the lower parcel of the farm, nestled along a clear clean river, everyone’s summer fantasy of ratatouille was ready for harvest: already lush heavy peppers, fat sweet onions popping out of the soil, monster summer squash plants, long vined tomatoes, an impossible amount of humid nightblue eggplant.

I really try not to romanticize farming, but Jesus, it is hard with this place.  Co-owner and farmer Ginger Salkowski has appeared in the Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement, and seems cut from the same tough cloth as Greenhorns founder Severine von Tscharner Fleming, as I recall from the panel we did together a few years ago at UO’s Food Justice conference.  Co-owner Brian Schulz builds foraged and sustainable structures powered by solar electricity, including a Japanese bath house where I would have gladly spent the entire weekend and a Japanesque A-frame covered in forest that the farm rents out on airbnb.com.

Also of note was an excellent meal at Dinner at the Nehalem River Inn, a recently revivified restaurant run by a young and talented chef, Lee Vance, who uses produce from R-evolution Gardens and other farms and gardens within 10 miles of the restaurant.  Yes, a farm-to-table restaurant 5 minutes from the coast!  Standouts included a silky sweet beet soup crowned by a nasturtium, simple roasted bone marrow over toast, a lamb ragú with ricotta gnudi, and rather hearty, plump, excellent house-made ravioli filled with pork and morels, served over creamed carrot purée with English peas.  A glass of lambrusco and a chèvre cheesecake in a warmly hued, cozy dining room certainly did not hurt matters, either.  From the few menus I browsed online, it appears they almost always have a local fish and a salted chocolate pot-de-crème that I’m sad I didn’t try.  The restaurant will reopen in a fab new building on the main drag in Manzanita, Laneda Avenue, right next to the farmers market, in fall, so check it out before the crowds figure out it’s the best thing going.  Seriously.

nose-to-tail eating in eugene

IMG_3012Surely not for the faint of heart, but a great pleasure for adventurous eaters: nose-to-tail cooking.  Popularized by British Chef Fergus Henderson, the concept asks cooks to honor the animal by consuming as much of it as possible.  This usually translates into sausages and terrines and soups, many European specialties, but there are also some wonderful options in Asian and Central American restaurants, too.  Many Americans find the idea of eating “the nasty bits,” as Anthony Bourdain calls them, revolting, but I think it’s worth our consideration as meat-eaters and ethical diners.

The duck chins, above, are Exhibit A.

IMG_3018At least with the larger mammals.  Tiny squid?  Well, it’s just pleasure to eat them whole.  Above, hotaru ika sushi at Kamitori, one of the finest preparations of squid I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Hotaru means firefly, and these little guys, about an inch or two long, bioluminesce in the dark water.  And since I’ve long suspected that squid were ruined for me after the most exquisite experience eating ika sashimi on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Japan, freshly hauled from the water, I’m so grateful.  Once again Chef Masa has filled me with unspeakable joy by serving sea creatures with respect and craft.  And no eyeballs, which were kindly removed.

Also, I was honored to join some of my students for an adventure this week at Spring Garden restaurant in Springfield, where we tried some of the more unusual items on the menu, including rabbit in a clay pot with ginger, salt-and-pepper fried chicken cartilage, stir-fried elk with onions and peppers, “saliva” chicken in a spicy sauce, and a dish that will horrify the local sportsfans among us, spicy duck chins with their little tongues a-waggin’ (top photo).  Below, you can see the English translation of the menu and the other dishes we enjoyed.

Spring Garden is a challenge, but it also has great possibilities on the Chinese menu even if you’re not into nose-to-tail cooking or exotic birds and reptiles.  You might also, if you must, order from the American menu with all the standards.  If you’re curious about the duck chins, which are of course the lower part of the duck bill, they are crunchy on the tip, and you eat the tongue, then pick at the meat at the base of the bill.  The chicken cartilage was crunchy, as expected; it was chopped into chunks and deep-fried in a batter lively with salt and Sichuan peppercorn, and decorated with chiles. Saliva chicken seemed to be steamed chicken in a spicy sauce — probably my favorite of all the dishes of the night.

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Spring Garden Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

happy as a clam

The intense, intensive week of reading historic cookbooks is over, and I’m tired but elated I had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful scholars in Cambridge.  A longer post is in the works, I promise, but for now, let’s just say I am as happy…

…as these guys.  Raw, steamed, fried, or whichever way you like us.

razor sharp: clam recipe ideas from a disgruntled shopper

PartyCart razor clam ceviche with chermoula

I went into a local fish store recently and saw a big heap of razor clams (silqua patula).  They’re the long, skinny clams that when pounded flat yield a piece of meat about as big as a nice T-bone.  I had had them recently on the coast in Yachats, pan-fried, and I wondered what other popular ways they might be served. I was thinking about a delicious abalone rice I had had in Japan, where a small abalone we procured on a boat trip in the Sea of Japan was chopped up and added to the rice water to make the most delicious, subtle rice.

So I asked the fishmonger who was helping me if he knew any other ways to cook razor clams other than pan-fried.  He said he had never had them and didn’t know, so he’d get someone else.  Fair enough.

The second person told me that they must be pan-fried. That was the only way to eat them.

Really? I asked.

Yes, he said, dismissively. The only way.

I replied, so nobody EVER eats them any other way?

Nope, he said.  Cover them in breadcrumbs and panfry them.  You just want to cook them quickly.  I WOULD NOT chop them up and put them in a chowder.  They’re too nice for that.  You’d waste them.

Naturally, I said, trying not to be annoyed.  But what about without breadcrumbs?  Maybe quickly seared and tossed with pasta, or a light sauté with butter and wine?  You’ve never heard of any other recipe from anyone else?

You ought to be on Top Chef! exclaimed the first fishmonger.

Nope, he said. There’s only one way.

Do you think anyone else here might know another way? I said.

Nope, he said.

Clearly not.

I really thought about whether I wanted to name the fish store, but I usually like them very much, so I’ll leave it to word of mouth.  If you know someone who works at a fish store that sells razor clams in Eugene, direct them to my blog, if you please.  At this place, the service can be taciturn at times, and they rarely have time to chat — but they let you know it.  This time, I was asked if I needed help the second I stepped up to the counter and then again about two minutes later, then had my order totaled up and presented to me as finished twice before I was finished choosing.  I’m not the speediest customer in the world, but I wasn’t exactly dawdling, either. But I understand how intense it gets behind the counter.  I don’t understand, though, when businesses don’t educate their staff well about the items they’re selling.  It means a lost sale.  Period.

Soooo…for those who are interested, since razor clam season is still open in Washington and Oregon, and the clams should still be around for a week or so, here are some other ways to prepare razor clams.

1) Razor clam ceviche with chermoula, an herb sauce with garlic and cumin from Morocco on a homemade pita chip.  I had the one pictured above at PartyCart.  There might still be some if you hurry down there.  There’s another recipe for razor clam ceviche with bright chili and red onions, plus the nice briny flavor of samphire (aka sea beans) here.

2) Two ideas posted in this thread of people searching like me.  The first is an impossibly long, slow braise, which makes octopus and squid tender, so I guess it works with big clams, too: “[Portland’s Wildwood Restaurant Chef Dustin] Clark sears pounded, tenderized [razor] clams in olive oil, then simmers them in an intense sauce of preserved tomato, fennel, shallot, white wine and green garlic for a long time in a slow oven. ‘I like to reduce the sauce way down because the clams will exude juice as they cook,’ Clark says. ‘The clams need to cook for an hour or two to have a chance to relax and become really, really tender.'”

3) And the second idea is rather brilliant, a PNW gravlax-style cured razor clam with conifer tips instead of fennel fronds:  “Equal parts sea salt and sugar, pinch or fresh pepper, pine needles or cedar tips. Chop the needles or cedar mix in with the rest. Coat liberally onto clams, wrap in cling film, place in flat container with weight on top of it. Wait 2 days then brush off and slice and eat on some crisp bread, or better yet, very fast, like 10 seconds on each side, sear, slice into inch long strips and place on light salad.”

4)  Thai razor clam salad with pickled vegetables, crushed peanuts, fresh green mint, Thai basil, Vietnamese sawtooth cilantro (which they’re selling at Grey’s right now as a start), and fried garlic and shallot.   The recipe is complex, but I think that you could improvise and still have a wonderful offering.  I don’t know what vegetables they use, probably a pickled mustard green.  But you could quick pickle carrots or cucumber or cabbage with salt for a couple of hours on the counter (toss with a handful of salt, let sit, then rinse off the pickles and squeeze all the water out of them).  Or maybe use chopped pickled chard stems?  Not remotely authentic but DELICIOUS.  Or heck, just use chopped fresh carrots and cabbage.

I’ve also seen razor clams grilled in their shells and dressed with a vinaigrette.  Or butter.  Can’t go wrong there.  Any other ideas?  I’m open.

purple varnish clams, part deux

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After our clamming adventure the other day, I set out preparing the haul.  I was unprepared for the deep purple insides. These little ladies are stunners. They also taste quite good. In the batch of 72, we had only three that were duds. After soaking them in salt water overnight, I rinsed them and refrigerated them today. They could have used more careful soaking, as they were still sandy. The guide suggested leaving them in a mesh bag in the salt water soak, and flipping the bag every couple of hours. I think I’ll try that next time.

clams soaking

To cook the purple varnish clams, I simply steamed them in about 1/2 cup of local Riesling, a couple of teaspoons of preserved lemon juice (lemon juice would do), a couple healthy shakes of dried thyme, a few garlic cloves and pepper. I removed the clams as they popped open in their bathtub, and we ate the whole bowl for dinner. I accompanied the clams with steamed broccoli, a tossed green salad with garbanzos, local beets, and feta, plus an appetizer of Moroccan carrot purée and pita bread. The clams are absolutely delicious!

purple varnish clam-digging

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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!)