SOUTHOLD—In early winter, when some East Enders are squirreling away thick-skinned squash in preparation for the long months seemingly barren of local produce, a hearty handful of men are just gearing up for their harvest.
Clamming season on Arshamomaque (or Hashamomuck) Pond, a body of salt water quietly sprawling between the bay and the Sound, requires some special equipment and a certain thickness of blood. The water is shallow, making it warm in the summer and thus perfect for the fast growth of mollusks, but also prone to freezing after a few chilly January nights. The clammers come clad in neoprene waders and armed with long-handled rakes, and upon entering the water, attach to themselves a floating screen and a collecting basket.
Below their feet are hard-shell clams, “happy” and scattered across the sandy bottom among stones and debris. In order to bring his prey to the surface, a clammer must sink the tines of a large basket-rake into the bottom and slowly work the rake across a patch, using a tugging motion that looks like someone trying to uproot a stubborn sapling. Once brought to the surface and washed of mud, the catch is separated from the stones and tossed in the screen to sort out anything under one inch before eventually being moved to the basket in batches. All this is accomplished under the watchful gaze of diving mergansers, which seem equally impervious to the water’s chill.
The clams will be loaded into the back of a pickup and deposited at seafood markets on the East End and in Nassau County, where they will be sorted by size into littlenecks, cherrystones and chowder clams. While clams might not drum up the same excitement as the first tomatoes of summer, they are a long-standing and flavorful element of local cuisine, and hopefully will be for years to come.
Christopher Fanjul lives in Southold and plans to forage mushrooms, oysters and goat cheese all winter long.