"Digging clams is kind of embarrassingly easy," wild foods writer Langdon Cook yesterday told a dozen aspiring foragers assembled at Dosewallips State Park. "It's amazing how people just don't realize that."
Photos by Ken Raskin
Cook's listeners were participants in the Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District's "Shellfish Foraging and Cooking" class, the second entry in its brand new "Bounty of the Land" outdoor program series. The sessions aim to connect Puget Sound residents with the environment in sustainable, responsible ways that don't involve fancy equipment or athletic training: Future classes include geoduck-gathering, berry-picking and herbal vinegar-making.
"Some people want to hike, some people want to snowshoe," outdoor programs coordinator Jeff Ozimek explains. "Some people just want to go out and eat."
But the typical "Bounty of the Land" class is no mere picnic: While the $49 daylong shellfish tutorial closed with a magnificent feast of barbecued oysters, littleneck clams stewed with spicy sausage and clams in a white wine cream sauce, the outdoor meal was preceded by hours spent freeing oysters and clams from the sand; mastering oyster shucking and chopping, dicing, mincing and stirring.
"Ideally, we're setting up participants so they can come back and do this on their own," Ozimek says.
The parks department partnered with Taylor Shellfish Farms to create the shellfish class, so participants collected their clams and oysters from the producer's adjoining property. Farm manager John Adams patiently coached the diggers, leading them to promising beds and pointing out oysters that met his size and shape standards. Still, many of the first-timers had trouble filling their buckets.
I suffered from an undeveloped "oyster eye", perpetually reaching for oysters that were too big. I initially defended my picks on aesthetic grounds, certain our leaders' rejection of my hand-sized oysters represented an anti-Southern bias. (Gulf oysters, of course, are huge: When food writer Robb Walsh first tried to sell the Louisiana Oyster Producers Association on the potential profitability of specific reef designations, he screened photos of Olympias and other relatively microscopic cold water specimens. The oystermen couldn't stop hooting.) But Adams wasn't buying it.
"This is what I do," he told me when I tried the challenge his description of the ideal oyster.
Big oysters, according to Cook, aren't suitable half-shell candidates. "They're good for frying," he said. "But you don't want that much oyster in your mouth."
(And, as I learned later, you don't want to waste bucket space on oversized oysters: I ended up ditching my most Herculean oysters to make room for my 40-clam limit.)
"It was freaking delicious," she told me.
Howard grew up in Washington State, but "in Port Orchard, you didn't eat anything that came out of the water. That's why I signed up for this class."
"Do you see how easy this is?," Cook yelped. "We just whipped up gourmet food at a campsite."