Sunday, October 27, 2013

Digging for Clams in Duxbury Bay

 My clamming hoe and wire basket

Here in New England, we take our shellfish rather seriously.  Drive along the coast from Maine to Connecticut and chances are you'll find at least one lobster pound or clam shack in every town that has a harbor.  While Maine lobster has its national following, we here in the Bay State are just as passionate about our Ipswich clams and Nantucket bay scallops, because these labels tell us much more than the mere geographic origin of these foods.  They imply a history - one that involves a rather long and close relationship between the local people and a particular food item.  They also exude the sense of pride and joy felt by the community for these foods, often considering them to be the best of their kind.  And above all things, these geographical names are an indication of real food (something you won't find on a bottle of corn syrup, but you will find on a jug of 'Vermont maple syrup').  

A house and dock on Duxbury Bay

While we were sad to leave Vermont earlier this year, I have to admit that it felt nice to be close to the ocean again and have greater access to fresh seafood.  Our home in Scituate is located about a mile and a half from one of the nicer beaches in the State.  Scituate harbor is also home to a declining local fishing industry - one that is in desperate need of support from the community.  In order to carve out a viable living doing what they love, a few intrepid fishermen have even ventured to sell directly to local customers.  We've established a relationship with one such fisherman and enjoy home delivery of lobsters caught on the same day and at a lower price than what you'd find at the supermarket.  We're hoping to expand this relationship to include fish and sea scallops during the winter months.

 To get to Duxbury Beach, you can cross the bay by way of Powder Point Bridge

One of the first things I did when we moved back to Masschusetts was to get a recreational shellfishing license from the town of Duxbury.  Though I'd never done it before, clamming seemed like a great way to get some exercise while offering us an opportunity to take a little more responsibility for the food we eat.  Out of this experience, I've become convinced that within all of us lies an innate desire to forage.  Leaving the flats after a couple hours of light physical labor with a bucket of clams for dinner is deeply satisfying.  My favorite time to go clamming is early in the morning when the sun is still rising and the ocean air is calm.  And like most things in this natural world, this activity is often dictated by the seasons. Spring and fall offer the best times to go clamming, while the bitter cold of winter and sweltering heat of summer (not to mention the threat of red tide) can usually persuade one to forgo this activity and do something else.

 Hard shell clams lie near the surface of the sand so you don't have do dig too deep. 

Duxbury Bay is about a 25 minute drive from where we live and is home to a lively group of recreational clammers who come from all over the state.  The water and beaches here are clean, and as a result, the clams  are not only safe to eat, but also incredibly delicious.  Scituate also has its own designated areas for shellfishing along the North and South rivers during certain times of the year.  However, these areas are not easily assessable without a boat.  As a result, Duxbury Bay offers a better opportunity for those who wish to clam on a regular basis.  I try to go at least once or twice a month during the cooler months.

 The incoming tide slowly fills the clam flats at Duxbury Bay.

There are several types of clams you can dig for in Duxbury Bay.  I generally go for hard shell clams as they are more versatile to cook with and you are permitted to dig for them year round (excluding times when the temperature is below 32 degrees F and the flats are closed due to red tide).  Several months of the year (April, May, September and October), you are also permitted to dig for soft shell clams - better known as 'steamers' in this part of the world.  These clams have a pronounced neck and are generally either steamed or used to make fried whole clams.  Unlike hard shell clams, which lie only an inch or two below the sand, soft shells can be 6 to 12 inches deep, making them much tougher to forage.  Duxbury bay is also home to Atlantic razor clams, which are no where near as big or popular as their Pacific cousin.  Finally, if you head off the flats and stroll along Duxbury Beach, you can hunt for sea clams, which can average 5 inches in length or more.  These clams are often cut up and used for fishing bait, although Howard Johnson  used them to create the world's first fried clam strips.  I've tried making my own fried clam strips with these clams and the results were rather tough.

 When clamming, you usually end up with a bucket of hard shells of varying sizes including little necks (left), cherry stones (middle) and quahogs (right).  

After a couple hours of clamming, I usually end up with a nice bucket of hard shells of varying sizes.  For the little necks and cherry stones, I like to make clams casino or linguine with whole clams.  As for the larger quahogs, I usually remove the dark parts of the belly (which is not necessary) and cut up the flesh to make chowder, fried clam fritters or a simple pasta dish.  Chopped clams also freeze well in their own juice.  Just remember to defrost in the refrigerator overnight before using. Finally, hard shell clams can be particularly difficult to shuck; but the process is made much easier if you thoroughly chill the clams first either in the refrigerator overnight or freezer for 15 to 30 minutes. 

After I get home, I usually rinse my clams outside before giving them a good scrubbing. 

Finally here are some tips if you decide to go clamming in Duxbury Bay:
  • Generally the best time to start clamming is about 2 hours before low tide.  And depending upon the water level at low tide, which varies throughout the month, you usually have at least 2 to 3 hours of solid clamming time within this window.
  • Make sure you wear the proper gear before you clam.  Waders are the best, but rubber boots will usually suffice.  
  • If you intend to go clamming with young kids, do not wander too far into the flats.  Generally the closer you get to the marsh, the muddier it tends to be, which can be extremely difficult for little feet to navigate.   You can burn a lot of calories trying to walk back to the beach ankle deep in mud.
  • Be mindful of where you are on the flats in case a heavy fog rolls in and visibility becomes an issue. 
  • Do not overstay your welcome.  The tide comes in quicker than you think.  If you are clamming with kids, move to a new location closer to the beach at low tide and be off the flats by 30 minutes past low tide.
  • Remember that a bucket of clams weighs a lot, especially if you lose track of time and find yourself racing against the incoming tide to get off the flats.  If you find yourself knee deep in rising water and ankle deep in mud, it can an exhausting experience, even terrifying if you have children in tow.  You can possibly find yourself stuck in the mud, unable to move.  If this happens, use your clamming hoe to pry your feet loose.  If this remains a problem, take off your boots.  It will still be difficult to wade through the mud with only socks on but not nearly as difficult with big rubber boots weighing you down.  
  • Keep a cellphone on you and have the harbor master's number on it.  There have actually been times when people needed rescuing because they got stuck on the flats.
  • Finally, make sure you are properly licensed and follow the rules, which are in place to protect the local shellfish population and ensure that the bay remains viable for recreational shellfishing.
Recreational shellfishing is not only extremely fun, but also economical. With the price of fresh clams being what they are, you can usually recoup the cost of your yearly license after only a couple of trips to the flats.  For more information on clamming in Duxbury Bay, click here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pssst...Our New Neighbor is a Tree Killer

A giant spruce stands to the right of our barn.  Of all the trees on our property, this was by far our favorite.  Ironically, this one needed to come down the most.

When you move into a new home, you must take on, and in many ways embrace, the role of being 'the new neighbor'.  In fact, you might as well have it emblazoned on your forehead.  Unfortunately, how long you remain in this role will depend largely on the will of the neighborhood to embrace change.  For instance, in the eyes of a previous neighbor who always kept his grass perfectly manicured and liked to spray Roundup perilously close to my garden, me and my organic vegetables would always be considered outsiders.  (But then again, his worldly view seemed just as foreign to me.) Luckily for us, in our present situation, it was only a matter of days until we were fully integrated into the neighborhood fold.  In fact, we've established close relationships with several of our neighbors and feel in many ways as though we've known them for years, which is a good sign when you've just bought your 'forever' home.

Still, like many new homeowners, I did experience my fair share of self-induced paranoia about what our new neighbors might think of us during this 'get to know you' phase.  Will they judge me if they hear my son throw a tantrum the size of Mount Vesuvious from the safety of their breakfast tables? Will they be annoyed if they see our dog Lucy leave a little present on their lawn as they enjoy this wonderful breakfast?  (Without us knowing, of course.) And most importantly, will their eyes glaze over when I tell them about all of the trees I want to cut down on our property?  (You know the look, the one that screams - "Dude, you just moved into the neighborhood and already you want to change it?")

After the fall - spruce trees have notoriously shallow roots that form a pancake shape around the base of the trunk.  This particular tree was leaning towards our barn.  The neighbors informed us that three similarly massive spruce trees directly across the street from us blew over during Hurricane Sandy.  In the end, we decided we loved our barn more.

If you think I'm overemphasizing this last point, think again.  Old neighborhood trees, even ones barely clinging to life, are like the teachers unions of the plant kingdom - they wield a power so great that even the slightest notion of change can spark a neighborhood feud on the scale of Shakespearean proportions.  I was reminded of this fact recently when a friend, who currently is building a home in a neighboring town, decided to trim up several tall trees that ran along his future driveway.  While chainsaws were in high gear, his future next-door neighbor drove by shouting the words all new residents want to hear  - "Wayyyydddddaaa bring down the neighborhoooooood!!!!" Which is why I thought it best to disclose my tree killing intentions to our new neighbors with beers in hand.

A row of overgrown cedars used to line our driveway along the north side of our property.  After taking them down, we now have a beautiful view of our neighbor's front yard.  They in turn have a nice view of our...well...gas meter.  This upcoming spring, I will plant a fruiting wall of dwarf apple trees spaced 3 ft apart where the cedars used to be. 

In the end, I don't think any of our neighbors really cared that I wanted to cut down some of our trees.  And by 'some' I mean many. In fact, it turns out that the person who needed the most convincing of all was my husband. (We're still negotiating several trees.)  I explained that some people prefer to live underneath the mighty shade of giant trees.  As a vegetable gardener, I am not one of them.  Which is not to say that I enjoy cutting down trees that have been around for longer than I have been alive just for the sake of some added Vitamin D.  In fact, I don't enjoy it at all.  However, I do find it perfectly respectable and prudent to cut down old neglected trees in order to free up some space to grow a garden or plant new trees that will either feed us with their fruit or seduce us with their form, foliage and grace.  In fact, the 11 fruit trees I've already ordered for delivery next spring will have to count on me being ruthless.

Trees. Be. Warned.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The State of Getting Settled

The farmer's porch at the back of our new home.

Something wonderful can happen when we reach our mid to late 30's. By now, we've left behind the hard-partying haze of our early 20's, overcome some of the initial career uncertainties of our mid to late 20's, and started that family we imagined we'd have someday in our early 30's.  At this point, the kids are starting school. We've sold that starter home we bought as an investment (in our case, a bad one) and now moved into our 'forever' home (or as forever as you can get in this age of uncertainty). One major benefit of this forever home, aside from the extra toilet you'll reserve for overnight guests, is the sense of security and well-being that often accompanies this act of 'settling down' - an idea that starts to sink in deep once you've lost several inches from your hairline and gained a few in your waistline. Or at least that's what happened in my case.

I'm sometimes struck by how transient we've become as a society, and how much easier it is now (with the benefit of modern technology of course) to pack up our lives and move on to the next geographic destination along this path we call life. I'm reminded of this fact every time I dial my husband's '323' cellphone area code - a souvenir he still keeps to this day from the years he lived in Los Angeles. Despite this fact, I truly think that most of us are born with an internal pull that beckons us to stake out our own piece of this world, tend to the earth around us, and lay down some deep roots. (For gardeners like myself, these 'roots' are literal.) After having moved 5 times during the past 7 years, this farmhouse built in 1865 and located in one of New England's oldest seaside towns is where we find ourselves now. It's also where we hope to be for many years to come. If all goes according to plan, our son who started kindergarten this fall will one day graduate from high school standing alongside the some of same friends he'll make this year. I'm also looking forward to planting a home orchard this upcoming spring and being around long enough to see the fruit harvest grow from handfuls to bushels as the years progress. And of course the house itself will surely benefit from having long-term owners who will fix its eventual cracks and leaks and grow to appreciate its slightly odd 19th century quirks.

Now that we've been in our new home for almost two months, I am happy to report that we've gotten pass the bulk of that dreaded unpacking stage and reached the point where we feel as though we can start on some of those odd projects all new homeowners pursue in order to make a new house feel more like a home. For me, that means cutting down a few unsightly trees, digging a new vegetable garden for next spring and resurrecting an old blog under the glow of a new name and personal outlook on things related to gardening and not. So here is the first official post for this blog, and hopefully the start of many more to come.

P.S. - If you're interested, you can read more about my old (and first) garden here.