The Day of the Mollusk
My first clam.
It happened on a boat. In public.
Until that blue sky day, off the far eastern coast of Long Island, I’d never had a raw mollusk touch my lips. It happened like this:
I was gripping the rail to steady myself, a 20-year-old college student, my face to the sunshine and the breeze in my hair as we pulled away from the dock at Orient, watching as the shoreline grew smaller and the Long Island Sound stretched ahead. Men in aprons were taking their posts, sharp knives prying open gray hard shells, placing each pale glistening morsel on mounds of ice. A ruddy faced man in plaid Bermuda shorts held one out to me.
I was startled. Did he expect me to eat that?
“You like clams?” he asked.
I nodded. Yeah, I like clams. Fried. Baked. Casino. Diced and sautéed in garlic and oil and poured over linguini. But raw? My family rarely ate fish except on Fridays, and then it was fishcakes and spaghetti at home or a Long Island blue smothered in tomatoes and olives at a seaside restaurant.
“Uh, I don’t know. We’re not supposed to take any free stuff,” I muttered, reciting the Newsday policies the editors drilled into the summer interns.
A senior Newsday photographer a few feet away gave me a “bah, humbug” frown as he squeezed lemon juice on a clam. “This doesn’t count,” he assured me, then popped it in his mouth and washed it down with a big swig of cold beer. Thanks a lot, I thought, my alibi blown.
Our assignment that particular day had been described as a monthly Southold town board meeting, this one held annually on an island that was technically part of the town, but where the residents had Connecticut zip codes and were reachable only by sea. It had seemed deliciously like a chapter from Alice in Wonderland.
But instead of a Mad Hatter, I found myself face to face with a middle-aged man in plaid, plying me with a snack as appealing as a raw egg.
Now, look, I reasoned with myself, what’s the big deal, right? I’m not kosher. I don’t have any allergies. I’m open to new adventures. But, really, how about a little breadcrumbs and bacon? My seafaring adventures had begun and ended at the Captree Boat Basin, from the dock, not the deck. And, oh, there was that day years earlier when I went fishing with my dad, clutching a pole from the five and dime, at the Cunningham State Park pond in Queens. I caught a goldfish and asked if we could take it home for supper. My father looked at me like I’d suggested cooking the pet dog. I threw it back.
When my family migrated from Queens to Deer Park, a totally land-locked hamlet off Exit 51, my mother, liberated in her new kitchen, filled the freezer with frozen steaks, hamburgers, fish sticks, and flounder filets, baked until they stuck to the pan.
Raw fish of any kind was rarely seen – and never, under any circumstances, eaten.
“You never know what the fish ate,” she’d warn. “Then you end up with whatever it picked up in the ocean.”
Not that I wasn’t well acquainted with the science of whole, living clams, these durable creatures dating back 510 million years, as well as a totally a rational perspective of their feeding habits and nutritional value (10-12 calories, a couple of grams of protein and lots of vitamin B-12), having studied marine biology at Stony Brook University. During low tide we’d dig in the estuary for hard and soft-shell clams, as well as fiddler crabs, admiring their ability to flee from predators (us). I’d studied them in the lab’s aquarium, bivalves opening and closing. I’d scooped them from the water, and dissected them: clumsily trying to discern their body parts. Who knew these little blobs had body parts? Anterior adductor, posterior adductor, the foot, the gill. The gonad? Eeew, I thought, but hey, I guess even clams “do it” to beget more clams. The heart and kidneys were harder to find and from there on it was just one slimy muscle. Better to be cleaned and chopped and breaded and baked. But licked? Sucked? Swallowed? Raw? Eaten ALIVE? Seriously?
I moved closer to the man in the apron as he wedged his knife between the shells (a.k.a. “the valves” in bio-speak), listened as he cracked, scraped and carved the flesh free, and watched as he placed it among the others crowded on the crystalline ice.
I quietly observed the revelers dabbing, slurping, laughing, talking and reaching for more. The atmosphere this far east had a casual, relaxed feel. These locals, mostly men who’d driven to the dock in ordinary cars, had the down-to-earth saltiness of the sea, and throaty laughter as sunny as the day. It was the North Fork, I’d been told by one, a world away from the “fancy” Hamptons to the south. I walked a little closer. Smiled. Nodded. Eager to show I that I felt at ease among this devil-may-care crowd and, if only for a day, to be my own person, to break out of my family’s shell, so to speak.
I reached down and lifted a clam carefully between my thumb and middle finger, picked up a spoon from the condiments tray and dabbed it with cocktail sauce and lemon. Then more sauce. And a little extra horseradish. To kill the taste and hide the sight of what was underneath.
I looked at other boaters. Are they using forks? Do I suck it right from the shell? Is it chewed, or swallowed whole? Is it obvious that I’d never done this before? Should I be embarrassed? Can I keep my cool? I felt my breath coming shallow and fast.
What if I throw up?
Pushing away these cascading fears, I hoisted the briny little bugger to my mouth, slurped, and swallowed.
I stood for a moment waiting to see what would happen. But all I felt was a pleasant, lingering salt water taste, and the luscious tang of horseradish and citrus. I reached for another, this time piling on a little less sauce, and then another, hoping this wouldn’t be like alcohol, where you wouldn’t know you’d reached your limit until it was too late.
But maybe it was too late. Because the guy in plaid hollered over, “If you like that, you gotta have some of these.”
There was another stash, with shells that were sinewy and rough.
These watery morsels seemed even slimier than the clams. But I held my head high and with a deft Lauren Bacall tilt of the head, I lifted a shell and I slurped. And slurped again. And again.
And then, all too soon, islands began coming into view and the eating and drinking slowed. I sighed, noticing that there were plenty of shellfish left.
“Is that Fishers Island?” I asked.
“Gardiner’s Island,” said man in plaid, who turned out to be a town councilman. “I think we’re stopping for a few minutes to see the owner, if he’s in.”
“The owner? Of the whole island?”
“Well, he and his sister. They share it.”
“Robert David Lion Gardiner,” the councilman added, tossing back another clam. “Like the island. Gardiner’s Island. He calls himself the 16th Lord of the Manor.” The councilman laughed and soon everyone was exchanging bawdy stories – off the record – of the eccentric millionaire who ruled the island, a neat piece of real estate these folks didn’t buy with a 30-year-fixed mortgage but had, in fact, inherited directly from the British crown, thanks to their well-connected ancestor – also named Lion Gardiner – almost four centuries ago.
Maybe I fell through a rabbit hole after all.
I opened my spiral reporters notebook and wrote: “Island owned by Robert David Lion. . . . “
I squinted at the councilman and asked, “What about Fisher? Fishers Island. Is there somebody named Fisher?” I asked.
The councilman at looked at me and shrugged. “That’s just a town. And an island. We got another two hours before we get there. Have some more clams before they’re all gone.”
He was right, a few more to tide me over to the other side of the ride. That’s when I started adding up the price of clams on a half shell in a restaurant and vowed, on my college student budget, that next time I went digging for clams, I’d save a few for the cocktail sauce.