‘Shucks,’ how do you open a clam?

Posted 8/17/22

“Clam chowder?” Carol asked as I came into the kitchen.

I expected her to hold up a Campbell’s can that she would open with a bit of help from a cranky can opener and set to …

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‘Shucks,’ how do you open a clam?


“Clam chowder?” Carol asked as I came into the kitchen.

I expected her to hold up a Campbell’s can that she would open with a bit of help from a cranky can opener and set to warming up in a sauce pan. Clam chowder sounded better than tomato soup, which is usually the luncheon fare along with a grilled cheese on winter Sundays. It wasn’t winter, however. So, what’s with the clam chowder?

She read my baffled look and reached for a brown paper bag, handing it over. It was heavier than I expected. Was it full of rocks? A look inside revealed about a dozen fist-sized quahogs. Where had they come from? Since the lower Providence River had opened on a limited basis to quahoggers, I was wondering if non-commercial diggers might start harvesting the bounty of bi-valves offshore from Conimicut Point. Neighbors told me they easily harvested the clams walking into the shallows at low tide. 

Yet, as much as Carol enjoys clam chowder I couldn’t imagine her, rake in hand, out front of the house. 

I pulled out one of the quahogs. It was slightly gritty and cool.

“Cheryl dropped them off,” she said. “Her husband got them.” 

Where? I questioned. Carol didn’t have a clue, but no question there was enough for chowder.  

I looked at Carol. What was the plan now? 

“Open them up,” she said. Okay, that sounded easy but never having shucked clams I didn’t imagine starting now. 

“Just wedge a knife in the crack and pry them open,” she said. Had Carol shucked clams, was this an attribute I was to discover after more than 50 years of marriage? I looked at the clam I held. It was clammed shut and a line between the shells was visible, but it didn’t look like I could slide in the thinnest of knives. Carol didn’t offer to shuck any quahogs, and I thought for sure I would end up with hand full of cut fingers. I felt the enthusiasm of a warm bowl of clam chowder ebb.

I recalled watching Warwick quahogger Jody King at a Come Clam With Me program co-sponsored by the DEM and the Vets Center recently at North Kingstown beach. The first two hours was spent in the shallows as he instructed more than 50 adults and kids how to rake. Silver rectangles hung from their necks. They had a rectangular opening designed to measure quahogs. If a clam pulled from the sandy bottom fit through the hole, it was too small to keep. Net bags hung from the belts of, or were stuffed into the pockets, of the students to hold their catch. The students divided into groups and enthusiastically started digging.

There were shrills of excitement from kids as rakes picked up spider crabs, horse shoe crabs a few whelk, one scallop and many quahogs. 

Jody called them all in to gather around a table where they displayed their haul. The horse shoe crab, which was way too large to fit in a catch bag, was of immediate attention. Jody held it up to show its shell encrusted with barnacles and its pointy legs that frantically squiggled for traction. Jody offered some facts on the crab that dates back to the dinosaurs and how their blood is used in medical research. He deputized the student who found it to return it to the water.

Then holding a paring knife and reaching into a bag of little necks he had caught. He pulled one out and demonstrated how to open it. It took barely 10 seconds before handing over the little neck on a half shell to one in the group. The recipient slurped the contents of the shell with delight. He had lots of takers for the four or five additional little necks he shucked.

He moved on to bigger quahogs like the ones in the paper bag. He wedged the shell in the crook of his thumb and worked the knife until it cut the muscle to pry the shell partially open. Then he rotated the knife inside the shell before prying it open. I had the general idea of what to do, but I wasn’t about to try it. The meat would taste the same if it came from a little neck or one of these bigger guys, he said. Yet, no one volunteered to eat it.

Jody had another plan for the bigger quahogs he brought along.  With a clang he dropped them into large steel pot and set them on a butane-fired burner. To the astonishment of his class, he didn’t add as much as a cup of water.  

“You’ll see; there’s lots of water there,” he said placing on the lid. He was right. When he opened the steaming pot, the clams had released a milky broth of bay water and chunks of clam meat. Jody then added his grandfather’s concoction of olive oil, crushed garlic and red peppers that he let stew for a couple of minutes before ladling shells, meat and brew into paper bowls and served with slices of Italian bread.

We could try the same thing now, I suggested to Carol. She looked apprehensive. Wouldn’t the fire burn the pot if there wasn’t sufficient moisture to create the broth? 

The option I suggested was to return the quahogs to the bay. That didn’t go over well. 

Maybe we wouldn’t have clam chowder, but one way or another we were going to have clams.

Just to allay fears of a scorched pot, I added a half cup of water and turned on the burner. The clams soon released their contents and Carol added the olive oil and garlic. She doesn’t care for red peppers. I could add that if I wanted.

Jody was right, fresh calms cooked in their juices are good.

Maybe it’s time I start raking.

This Side Up


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