Edible Traditions


TheWholeWorld Digs North Shore Clams
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely

At the main warehouse of Ipswich Shellfish Company in the North Shore town of the same name, a clam digger lifts his daily catch onto the scale for weighing and paying. He makes a gesture of thanks to Mike Trupiano, the general manager, and goes on his way.

This particular morning happens to follow a full moon, whose gravitational pull creates the high and low tides of coastal towns such as Ipswich. Trupiano shows me a basket of razor clams, deep-burrowers found only at extreme low tide, and another of surf clams destined for sushi, chowder and fried strips. The third type of clam here today is soft-shells, or steamers—Mya arenaria, a mainstay of Ipswich since before colonial times. The native Abenakis (who named this place Agawam, meaning salt marsh) carved wampum from the shell, which they strung into necklaces used for ornament, ritual—and currency. Clams even now remain essential to the local economy.

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Trupiano takes me to the area where clams are being processed. First they are dipped in hot water for three seconds, then plunged into ice water for a few seconds more to relax the muscles. In the shucking room, where 40 to 50 women, mostly Cambodian or Hispanic, in white hairnets silently shuck clams, some 200 bushels a day. They deftly remove the thin, brittle shells, peel off the leathery gray skin and cut out the chewy neck.This protruding siphon, which gives the longneck its other nickname, “piss clam,” keeps the shell from closing tightly when the mollusk is out of the water and enables it to take in nutrients and filter the water back out. These women work here for eight hours a day, some for as many as 15 years, shucking up to 15 eight-pound buckets of clam meat per day.

Finally the clams are drained and packed for shipment. Their shelf life is seven to 10 days, but Trupiano assures me they are consumed long before then. Demand is high for Ipswich soft-shell clams, which are cooked in various ways—often steamed in chowders, simple or not— but never eaten raw. They are considered the best type of clam to batter and deep-fry, because of their balance of sweet flavor and crisp-tender texture. The clam shacks in Ipswich, Essex and other towns on the North Shore do a brisk business preparing these for the public, especially in summer.

Ipswich Shellfish was established by George Pappas in 1935 in his basement. Seeing an opportunity, he was the first to process soft-shell clams by shucking them, keeping them on ice and delivering directly to restaurants, each an innovation. His success created an industry: The name “Ipswich clam” now designates a soft-shell clam from other
places as well.

If the state closes harvesting areas during red tide, clams are brought in from outside of the affected area. Trupiano assures me that, despite confusion over red tide, which scientists more accurately call “harmful algal bloom,” the public need not fear buying toxic seafood. In many waters of the world, so-called red tide comes from the buildup of algae, natural or induced by agricultural runoff after rainfall, combined with warm surface temperatures. Low salinity and calm weather followed by hot sun all encourage this complex phenomenon, which scientists do not fully understand.

Even if the shipbuilding trade has gone elsewhere, the town of Ipwich, established in 1633, has kept much of its character and charm. Its Historic Society, in the JohnWhipple House whose oldest part was built in 1642, has a path of crushed clamshells leading to its front door. Some of the town’s houses, many of them very old, look out onto wetlands, tidal flats and barrier beaches formed by the Ipswich River’s estuary. On a larger scale, the Great Marsh, as it is called, reaches from the tip of Cape Ann all the way to the New Hampshire border and beyond, a rich ecological and environmental region formed by the ever-changing wash of the tides. History in this place of surpassing beauty is written not in centuries but in eons.

In Brenda and Steve Turner’s house, the schedule of Ipswich’s tides is always ready at hand. Except for this past winter, when they visited one of their daughters in Hawaii, they dig year-round, in the cold months wearing five layers and hip boots for the wind as much as the chill. At low tide almost every day they go clamming unless the flats
are closed due to prolonged rainfall. TheTurners are the only full-time clam-digging couple in town, of some 125 commercial diggers who by town regulation must be Ipswich residents. The board of health requires them to sell to wholesalers, and most diggers sell to several.

About two hours before ebb tide they set out, sometimes starting shortly before dawn. “We walk around a little to see where most of the clams are,” Brenda says.When the water is low, little holes in the sand tell them where the clams are burrowed. “You learn how to dig without damaging the catch, how to put the fork in without breaking the
shell,” she explains. The technique is to dig 12 inches down, then expand right and left, folding over the sand. It looks like backbreaking work, but Brenda, who is fit and energetic with a lively sense of humor and hearty laugh, says that “once you start doing it, your body gets used to it.With technique, it’s not so strenuous.”

Steve Turner shows me his clam fork, essentially a pitchfork with a short handle bent nearly at a right angle to the tines, his wooden handle worn down with use. Brenda’s handle is of metal soldered on by a friend who custom-made it for her and put her initials on it. Steve shows me how her tines are longer and more curved than his, to dig more deeply. Both have other forks, for different depths and types of mud or sand, or the rare occasion when one breaks, but these are their favorites in their chosen styles.

As a boy in Ipswich, Steve spent summers with his grandparents, “in the last cottage, on the water,” as he put it. He went clamming for pleasure not with his father, as this tradition is often carried on, but with a neighbor, the harbormaster. Many years later, Brenda started digging with a daughter and then a friend. She liked it so much, especially the freedom she didn’t have in her job as assistant manager of a pharmacy, that she decided to get a commercial license. After 10 years she is still the only female full-time digger in Ipswich. Serving on the shellfish committee and as constable helped her gain acceptance in the clamming community. Her husband of 30 years says proudly, “You did good for the industry.”

By now, Steve and Brenda have been digging together for 10 years. Banter and jokes punctuate their conversation. “I was in management for 20 years,” Steve says, for a big national company, “with lots of people under me. Now, the solitude—I love it.We go off by ourselves.”

“There’s no pressure,” Brenda adds. “And I get to spend a lot of time with my grandchildren.”

The 180-pound limit per day usually takes them about 3 to 3½ hours. “They’re starting to do a better job at managing the flats that this town is blessed to have,” she says. Ipswich has 56 clam flats, which are reseeded on nets every eight years. Not only people but also green crabs and seagulls are predators. She mentions the runoff after heavy rain,
when pesticides from fertilizer for lawns and farming pollute the water and force the closure of the flats.

The Turners go where the clams are mature, not to damage the little ones they leave for the future. It takes 18 to 24 months for an Ipswich clam to grow to two inches, adding a ring a year. Later on,Mike Gagne of Ipswich Shellfish Company points out to me how the dark line on the shell shows more clearly on clams that live on the inland side of
Castle Neck—opposite Crane Beach, for instance, in the mudflats where dark vegetal silt gives clams a sweeter taste. Whiter soft-shells come from sandier, seaward locations.

Joseph Buttner, a professor of biology of Salem State College, has been instrumental in his work with soft-shell clams at the Northeast Massachusetts Aquaculture Center (NEMAC). Sometimes it’s out on the mudflats and sometimes it’s in town halls, he says, educating people in one way or another. “Restoration and enhancement,” he calls his work.
“NEMAC provides technical assistance that includes baby clams, equipment and supplies, advice and on-site visits,” sometimes in collaboration with the Division of Marine Fisheries. He points out that “each community approaches it differently, consistent with their resources.” Thus far he has overseen the production of 2 to 4 million clams per year, distributed to over two dozen towns in the state.

The baby clams are produced under controlled conditions, with critical guidelines.The parent clams are brought to their Cat CoveMarine Laboratory in January. By manipulating the air and water temperatures in the tidal pool adjacent to the lab, the clams are ready to spawn in March “in an aquatic orgy,” as he describes it. Again in the fall, reverse
warming and cooling, along with lots of nutrients, induces the clams to spawn again. In this controlled reproduction, avoiding competition and predators, he and his crew can “greatly increase the survival rate” of Mya arenaria and the speed with which they reach maturity, astonishingly so. As for the ways the clam helps the North Shore, he lists them: “The clam is low on the food chain. It eats algae and improves the water quality. Its shell puts calcium carbonate back
into the water.” At the same time, he continues, “it helps the Currier & Ives image of the fishing towns.” He mentions the clam shacks and eateries in Ipswich and other North Shore towns that attract long lines of visitors in summer who debate which one makes the best fried clam. “It’s the ecological footprint of here!”

“One nice thing about the Ipswich clam,” he points out, “it’s our clam.” From southern Maine to Rhode Island, “it’s our critter.”