A northwest legend tells of a girl who dropped a clam from a small boat and went in after it, the water reaching up to her waist. A hand suddenly gripped hers, but she didn’t scream. This happened several times, and a voice said loving things to her about the beauty at the bottom of the sea—of things not seen from land.
One day, a young man rose from the water and asked her father if they could marry. Father said no, and the young man said he would be sorry, because the seafood will become scarce—no shellfish, no salmon. Father then agreed to the marriage if his daughter returned once a year to tell him if she was happy with the young man. She walked into the water, and her young man kept his promise. She returned every year for four years, and there was plenty of seafood for the people. Each visit she was unhappy out of the water: barnacles began to grow on her face, a chill wind came when she walked about. The people told the father to release the husband from his promise and tell his daughter only to come when she wants to. She did not come back but was a guardian forever of her people, so they would always have fresh seafood.
All Native people who live or have lived by the ocean on either coast are aware of the goodness and health benefits of shellfish. They travel to the shores in good weather to harvest this bounty, eating fresh seafood and smoking or drying what they can to bring back to winter camps.
It is said that shellfish—such as lobster, scallops, oysters and crabs—were much larger when the Europeans came to New England. This may be true on the west coast as well—the large abalone, conch, geoduck clam and the Alaskan king crab come to mind.
Fresh shellfish often taste sweeter than fish because they contain glycogen, a polysaccharide which converts to sugar glucose. Lobster is the sweetest, followed by crab and then shrimp.
Have you ever wondered why lobster claws are secured with rubber bands? It isn’t so much to save their handlers’ fingers. The lobster is a cannibal. If not restrained or disabled, they would devour each other while held in tanks or shipping crates.
I was brought up on clams and mussels, and it is true that you should not eat them if their shells do not open when cooked. If you encounter a bad one, you will never again forget to be mindful of where the clams come from. The color and aroma will tip you off.
A raw fresh clam—with a squeeze of fresh lemon and some horseradish/chili sauce—is one of nature’s true gifts. It feels like eating pure health. My family also loves them fried, stuffed, steamed, in chowder…pretty much any way they come. If you like garlic, mussels handle it well if combined with butter and broiled.
Scallops are actually a muscle, unlike other mollusks that we eat whole. When pulled from the water, a scallop’s juices run out so, professional gathers shuck this bivalve on the boat.
The best way to purchase shellfish is fresh and live; next is frozen, as they are usually flash-frozen on the boat immediately after being caught. Oftentimes, shrimp and scallops are available this way, and shucked clams and oysters are often sold frozen for easy cooking.
Broiled or Grilled Appetizer Clams
12 fresh littleneck or cherrystone clams, washed and shucked
2 strips of bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces
½ cup bread crumbs, plain or flavored
2 tablespoons fresh grated parmesan cheese
Sprinkle a teaspoon of bread crumbs on each clam, sprinkle with a bit of parmesan and place a 1-inch square of bacon on top. Broil and watch closely for about 10 minutes or until bacon is cooked.
RELATED: Dale Carson’s Ode to Oysters
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.