Wham, bam, thank you clam. 

An hour (and a small blister on my pinkie) yielded a bivalve bounty: protein for the week and so much more. Nothing makes me happier than foraging, finding, collecting and harvesting my own food. Clamming is a favorite and productive pastime.  

I am not alone in my hunger for the food and activity. Any day of the week will find folks out in Island waters scratching up clams and we follow a long line of mollusk marauders.  

Start with the natives of this country. Indigenous folks knew the value of the clam for food and funds, using the shells to make beads for trade. The scientific name for clam, Mercenaria mercenaria, is reported to be derived from a word variously translated as wages, hired for pay or commercial. Colonists were Johnny-come-latelys to clam consumption, considering them a poor person’s food and an end of the line food for desperate times.  Thus unenlightened, they preferred to feed clams to their pigs or use them as bait.  

Colonists were coming around to clams even if they were not their favorite food. Access to this food supply was guaranteed when The Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1647 decreed that “Every householder shall have free fishing and fowling as far as the tide doth ebb and flow within the precinct where they dwell, unless the freemen of the same town or the General Court have otherwise appropriated them, provided that this shall not be extended to give leave to any man to come upon other’s property without their leave.”  

Sadly, and not surprisingly, we depleted the resource. In 1909, a Report on the Mollusk Fisheries of Massachusetts explained our overuse: “With no thought of seed time, but only of harvest, the fertile tidal flats are yearly divested of their fast-decreasing output by reckless and ruthless exploitation, and valuable territories when once exhausted are allowed to become barren. All hopes for the morrow are sacrificed to the clamorous demands of the present. The more the supply decreases, the more insistent becomes the demand; and the greater the demand, the more relentless grows the campaign of spoliation.”  

In response to the decline and to assure the supply, local and state governments got involved, regulating, managing, and encouraging the stock.  We are lucky to have local shellfish departments and an Island-wide shellfish group working to keep Island ponds well stocked.  

What to do with those gathered goodies is easy.  We will have them raw, casino-ed, grilled, chowdered, and stuffed. This clammer will never tire of them (even if her spouse will).   

Herman Melville, writing of clam excess in Moby Dick, tells of a Nantucket chowder house that served only chowder (cod and clam), “Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.”  

Joseph Lincoln, who authored almost 50 works about Cape Cod, was also a clam man. Speaking of New England clam chowder, he wrote “A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for, or on, clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle in a kettle.”  

With that anthem and praise ringing in our ears, we can head into Memorial Day (and beyond) with a real sense of anticipation and a clam slam to boot! 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.