Monday, August 27, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Bonacker…. Or Clamming Next to One…

Bonacker: the name for a native people of the Springs Area of East Hampton, New York.

One might be familiar with the Springs as the home to influential American painters, Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, but the root of the community as home to baymen, fishermen, and farmers go way back some hundreds of years…or so this story begins…

Set to meet my clamming partner at daybreak…errr, 9am (it was a Sunday, give me a break, a girl needs her beauty rest), I made it out to the waters a little after 10am. Not fully awake, wading waist-high through Gardiners Bay, off of Three Mile Harbor, jolted me back to life. Al Lester welcomes me (aka Albie, aka Swampa is a true Bonacker, as well as a craftsman, contractor, jokester, and a real deal swamp man) and has gotten a head start.

He has jerry-rigged a rake attached to a belt, attached to a basket, combing the bay floor for clams and dropping them into another cleverly jerry-rigged basket that sits in hole of a cut out boogie board, keeping the clams cool in the water. As a commercial clammer, he has a order to fill of 800 clams for his family’s farm stand, Round Swamp, which also has incredible pesto pasta salad among other homemade prepared dishes.  By the afternoon and he makes it seem more like meditation than work.

Heading Out
Keepin the Clams Cool
Not so fast, all you eager clammers out there, everyone digging needs to be a local and licensed (read: pay taxes). However, with new rules, resident license holders can bring a guest (Thanks, Mom!). Also in the rules, each person cannot exceed more than 100 clams per person, but, that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

A few tips and how-to’s:

 -   Hold the rake with one hand and with light pressure
 -   A slight bump in the seafloor will indicate a buried clam
 -   Dig by moving the rake back over the bump and scratch the surface back and forth to wiggle the little guy free
 -   Pull the rake directly up towards you and gauge your findings

After a few pulls resulting in only some rocks and barnacles, I felt something suctioning to the bay floor. With a slight tug-of-war, I pried the little sucker free. A buried treasure, an Easter egg of the sea,  I found a clam!

Before chucking him into your basket, as we were told,  measure him against the gauge and toss any that are under size back to the bay. Next summer they will be prime for the plucking.

Al offered some other boy scout tips and tricks of the trade: if you stumble upon a “hot spot” of clams your first expert move is to “take a range” (unsure if that is a nautical or a Bonaker original term). From where you are standing in the water, line up two points on the shore with another two points at another angle of the shore. The intersecting point is where you stand (Consider this post a modern day topography class) and, in other words, a clam haven. Another power move is to rake 360 degrees from that point. As we know from social situations, friends like to hang out in groups, same goes for clams.

This Girl Found a Hot Spot!
Through the midday sun, I was equally worked on my Bonaker’s tan, filling up my basket with bounty and finding more peace than my yoga practice. Chatting with other clammers, you start to feel as if you are inducted into a community. Everyone chats with Al, as he is THE guy and nothing short of famous in these parts. Let’s just say if there was a clam club, he would be VIP (No euphemisms here). Al even regulates the area, quelling drama on the seas when a group of Long Island guys with heavy inflections when they had come back for another round after poaching their allotted amount. A jocular teacher even called out to me for “cheating” when I substituted the rake for my hands to pry a clam loose. Even the novice over here gets her chops busted.

Boat Full of Bounty
Over four hours traipsing and traversing the waters, I gathered a basket full of little necks, cherrystones, chowders, and even a random oysters! 

Here’s a rundown of the different types of clams:

Little Necks: The smallest of the clams. Great eaten raw or placed directly on the grill for a few minutes until they open and served with lemon and garlic
Cherrystone: The midsize guys. Best in Italian dishes like baked clams or linguine a la vongole.
Chowders: The big suckers. Perfect for cooking in dishes like the aptly named clam chowder soup and the Hampton’s Classic, Clam Pie.

With pruned, water-logged fingers and an upper body workout to rival that of any yoga class, I drag my bounty ashore. A day as a true Bonaker, or next to one, I enjoy the fruits of sustainability and the peace of the waters. Until Fall’s scallop season, Om Shreem Maha Lakshmiyei Namah.

Traditional to the East End of Long Island is the Clam Pie also know as a Bonac Clam Pie. Here is a recipe adapted from my Mom’s clam pie. Her words, “a little of this, a little of that, just go by feeling”.  Thanks again, Mom!

East Hampton Clam Pie recipe by my Mom

Pie Crust. An easy way to cheat is to store-buy your pie crust.  And I’m into the idea of cheating, especially after a full day of clamming. If you are feeling ambitious, follow your favorite pie crust recipe, but there’s no need to pre-bake the crust.

Mom's Clam Pie!
Pie Filling

3 C. of Shucked Clams, about 18-20 Clams 
1/4 C. Clam Broth (Clam Juice from Clams)
3 Small Red Potatoes
1 Onion
2 Stalks of Celery
6 Bacon Strips
1/4  Tsp. Oregano
2 Tsp. Flour
1/4 C. Cream


Rinse clams well under cold water.
Steam clams open and reserve clam broth to add to mixture
Cut the potatoes, celery, and onions and the clams in bite size pieces.
Saute vegetables in clam broth, and once cooked, add the clams, bacon, cream, flour, broth, and oregano (and any other of your favorite spices). 
Once cooked, transfer filling into pie crust
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes

xx Erica Schwartzberg

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