(illustration by Howard Mitcham, Provincetown Seafood Cookbook)
Howard Mitcham is the Herman Melville of cookbook authors; this is Mitcham on sea clams, or Spissula solidissima:
“Unlike the peaceful quahaugs and steamer clams, the sea clams love the wild pounding surf and the ‘live’ sand that moves and shifts around. They live on exposed outer beaches just below mean low water line, and love the channels that form between the small bars below low water mark.”
“You haven’t really begun to be a Cape Tip gourmet until you’ve learned how to make stuffed sea clams and that delicious classic, sea clam pie. All of the chowders and minced clams that you buy in stores are sea clam products, there aren’t enough quahaugs and steamers available anymore to keep a clam factory running. But the delicious clam loses so much of its sparkle in the canning process that they really ought to label the cans something else. You won’t find a recipe in this book beginning, ‘Take a can of minced clams…’
While Mitcham has a fine recipe for stuffed sea clams – (2 dozen large sea clams, 2 loaves hard bread, garlic, onions, green peppers, celery, parsley, saffron, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, white wine, and sherry) – and a recipe for Sea Clam Pie, you won’t find them published in this blog. As I’ve written, I’m reprinting recipes from The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook to frame how much the seafood industry has changed since Mitcham published this book in 1975. Today, some people can find sea clams in a channel beside a sand bar just below the mean water mark, but most some clams come from the sea clam industry, in which the sea floor is hydraulically dredged, both a violent assault to the sea clam’s home and big money.
A January 15, 2015 article in the Cape Cod Times describes a battle over this practice being fought right off the shore of Mitcham’s beloved Provincetown: sea clam vessels dredging thousands of shellfish from a 2-square-mile area off Herring Cove Beach in a month, netting $120,000 on about 12,660 cubic yards of clams. The Provincetown Conservation Commission is trying to stop what looks like pillaging but is still authorized by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
The article quotes Provincetown harbormaster Rex McKinsey on dredging: “The practice of shooting 50 to 100 pounds of water pressure into the sand to release the clams disturbs the ocean floor and damages the habitat for fish, clams and other marine life.”
I’ve seen the conditions in a sea clam factory. The cold, wet, slimey work is done mostly by immigrant women. Now work is work, and I’m sure everything in this factory is legal, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries gives hydraulic dredging its blessing, so this “industry” is all above board, but that’s not to say we should support it. When the scale of things gets multiplied by a factor of a thousand – thousands of pounds of sea clams are removed from the ocean, processed and shipped around the world every day – things get messed up. The environment gets assaulted and work conditions get ugly. This is not a pretty industry, in my eyes, but it’s a big one. Think about how often you see clam products – minced clams, frozen clam chowder, cans of clam chowder – and then remember China loves clams. This is a lot of clams being removed from that “live” sand.
I really couldn’t dig my own sea clam, and I wasn’t going to purchase any sea clam products – even fresh processed – to make Mitcham’s stuffed quahaugs, although I’m sure they’re delicious. So I skipped that chapter and went to blue mussels, or Mytilus edulis.
According to a U.S. Fish and Aquaculture website, mussel shells have been found in kitchen middens as far back as 6,000 B.C. They have been farmed from wooden poles called “bouchots” in France since the 13th century.
Mussels have been like the kale of the oceans; their resilience to salinity and temperature allow them to grow almost anywhere from warm brackish semi-fresh waters in intertidal zones to deep, cold seawaters, even able to survive long periods of sub-zero temperatures. Some mussels can live up to 18 – 24 years old. Wild mussels (once) settled in wide open spaces called mussel beds. But that “once” is the issue.
While farmed mussels are having their day, wild mussels, which once defined the Atlantic coastline, are virtually gone. An article from last summer in the Portland Press Herald discussed Maine’s drastically changed coast, void of gleaming ebony and purple mussel croppings.
There are a number of villains in this tragedy, but the fattest, reddest arrow points to green crabs, Carcinus maenas, listed as one of the top 100 most invasive species in the world. Here’s a link to my own story on the green crab,
http://heatheratwood.com/blog/tag/green-crab-stock/ – but there are many more out there.
I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to purchase a package of commercially produced mussels for my Mitcham Marinated Mussel recipe; farmed mussels are everywhere from fish markets to large grocery stores. They are as easy to source as sandwich bread, the fluffy spongy kind. I purchased a net bag of mussels from Moosabec Mussels, Inc, a family owned business which claims to have “the largest single lease of ocean bottom for the aquaculture of mussels in the State of Maine.” But this company also claims to harvest “native, naturally grown” mussels, which must mean “wild.” My bag of mussels were tagged as “wild,” harvested from the Pleasant River on 2/22/16.
So, it may be a good thing that, while the wild mussels are mostly disappearing because of green crab infestation, companies like Moosabec Mussels – and many others – are farming mussels, and finding ways to protect their crop from that biblical invasive species.
But, I will say I didn’t love these mussels. They were small and flavorless. I mean flavorless, as in if you tasted them blind you wouldn’t know what they were. Also, Mitcham includes a small detail about how it’s important to remove a mussel’s beard, the stringy tendrils called byssal threads that allow mussels to attach to the ocean floor, to wooden posts, and to each other. Those tendrils have been studied by scientists for their resistance to seriously harsh conditions; byssal threads are basically a fabric that will not degrade in moving salt water. And yet, ocean acidification is affecting even byssal threads. According to an article in Scientific American, byssal threads on mussels in Washington St. have weakened by as much as 40 percent when exposed to PH levels as low as 7.5, which scientists there have seen. This isn’t good news for wild or farmed mussels.
The recipe itself – lots of onion, garlic, powdered mustard, and parsley – was delicious. This makes a bright, interesting appetizer or a wonderful sauce in which to toss rigatoni, as the small mussels catch in the tubes. Maybe you can find better mussels than I can; this would be an entirely different dish made with plump, orange wild mussels that have been declared history only in the last five years.
Marinated Mussels Provincetown Seafood Cookbook
(I prepared 2 pounds of mussels, and basically quartered the recipe. It still made plenty of marinade.)
1 ten quart bucket of mussels
1 cup vinegar
1 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley.
4 cloves garlic, minced
dash of Tabasco
2 tablespoons powdered mustard
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Steam the mussels and shuck them. Beard them. Soak then in a marinade made from the rest of the ingredients, combined. Since the mussels themselves are so mild, this marinade should have the bong of a kettle drum. Chill before serving ask an hors d’oeuvre.