Clam Chowder Memories
By Vanessa Wamsley
I perched on a porous boulder at the edge of California’s Monterey Bay with my three-year-old son, Brad. The September sun warmed our backs – local’s weather, as it is fondly called, when the summer rain and mist lift after the tourist season quiets down. A huge Styrofoam cup balanced on the rock between Brad and me. We took turns spooning out thick, creamy clam chowder, blowing to cool each bite.
Clam chowder was my son’s favorite food back then, and we visited the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf every Monday morning for a year to share a cup of chowder, our weekly ritual while his dad was at work. Just my son and I on the rocks. But we were a nomadic military family. We would be leaving Monterey and its chowder soon for the East Coast. And like every other move, home would be where the Army sent us.
From our rocky seat near the wharf, we stared down at some sea lions floating together in the shallow water. Their sleek rich coats shone in the sunshine. Pelagic cormorants, black and shiny as patent leather, preened in the sparkling water before suddenly turning tail-up to dive after a darting fish. Brad pointed out a slick sea otter floating on its back under the pier, hacking a clam open with a small rock.
I lifted another spoonful to my lips. The salty, bacon-laden chowder tasted of sunshine, seawater, and tender clams. I would miss that chowder when we moved. Brad and I belonged in that place with our soup and the salt air and the marine wildlife. Would we belong in our new home, too?
Our family moved six months after that day on the rocks. But that would be just one in a series of moves since I met and married my husband Jake in 2004 while he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In the last ten years, we’ve lived in Texas, Alabama, Illinois, California, Maryland, and Virginia, where we live now – that is, until we move to Alabama again this summer. All of these moves have addled my sense of where I belong in this world, even though I have roots like a cottonwood tree reaching deep into the small Nebraska town where I grew up. But I wonder where Brad belongs. His roots might be shallow after all our transplants, and I am afraid they are too weak to support him as he goes through life.
Three years and two moves after Monterey, in October of 2014, I took Brad, then six years old, camping at Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland, a mother-son camping trip. While I was preparing for the trip, Brad overheard me tell his dad that we could find clams right off the island.
“We have to go clamming, Mama! Please, please, please, please!” he begged, hopping from one leg to the other.
“I’ll look into it,” I promised.
“And we’ll make chowder, right?” he asked.
“Um, sure,” I answered.
I didn’t know what I was promising since I had never been clamming. But I wanted to give Brad good chowder again. In the three years since we left Monterey, I had tried to make his favorite dish a few times. But my chowder never reminded me of the sea on a sunny day. It tasted more like a muddled lake in the rain, a poor imitation of the chowder my son and I ate on those rocks next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I suspected that canned clams had ruined my previous attempts to recreate the Fisherman’s Wharf chowder. Fresh clams could be the answer.
Two months after promising my son clam chowder, we went clamming on Assateague Island. We rented equipment and got basic clamming instructions from a man at the rental shed on the beach. The rental man handed me a clam rake and a basket.
He told me to look for a spot with a nice mix of plants and sand covering the bottom. Too many plants would tangle up the rake. Too much sand meant the nutrient mixture in that area wasn’t right for clams. He stepped out onto the beach to demonstrate how to drag the rake behind us.
“When you hear a clink,” he said, “you’ve hit a clam.”
I imagined us shuffling around in the cold October water for an hour, struggling with the long, heavy clam rake. I pictured opening the canned clams I’d brought so we could make chowder even if we failed at clamming. This chowder might taste like disappointment, I thought.
We carried our equipment to the edge of the marsh about 100 yards from our campsite on the western side of the island. Rake and basket in tow, we waded into knee-deep cold water – almost waist-deep for my son.
Assateague Island is a 37-mile long barrier island between Sinepuxent Bay and the Atlantic, one in a chain of islands draped along the East Coast like a long string of beads from Maine to Texas. As wind, waves and storms constantly buffet the chain, the sand on one beach slides to the next island, a process called longshore drift. Each island constantly moves south, its sand no more a part of any one place than Brad or I was. We visited, we drifted along the island’s surface, and we moved on.
At my feet, the deep blue bay flowed into vivid green cordgrass. Salt marsh stretched back into the island for about fifty yards before hitting a bank that rose up into a forest. Loblolly pine trees reached gnarled branches over a thicket of wax myrtle and bayberry.
We dragged our rented rake and floating basket behind us with the edge of the marsh on our right.
When we stopped and the water cleared, we could see our toes wiggling. My toes looked just like they did under the clear sapphire-blue water in Monterey Bay when Brad and I used to wade in the surf. But Brad’s toes seemed to have doubled in size in three years. He wasn’t a toddler running from the waves anymore. He had grown into an inquisitive boy.
Around our feet under the brackish water off Assateague Island, small patches of plants clung to the sand around us, just like the rental man had described. My son pointed out little holes on the bay floor. He claimed the holes meant crabs were filter feeding under the sand.
“It’s the perfect spot!” Brad said.
We crisscrossed the area, the rake leaving ridges behind us in the sand like those Zen sand boxes some people groom in their offices. Clink! Brad and I sank our fingers into the sand, feeling blindly for pay dirt. Or pay clam. My fingers curled around something flat and hard, a clam the size of my palm, almost two inches thick. We leapt in the water, nearly soaking ourselves in our enthusiasm. A pair of kayakers decked out in jackets, paddling gloves, and thick hats stopped at the mouth of an inlet in the marsh to watch us, the lone clammers wading through 65-degree water on a chilly fall day.
“It’s our first clam!” I shouted to them, sharing our exultation. “Ever!” They laughed and saluted with their paddles.
Excited by our success, we covered the area in rake tracks. We found a couple more clams but threw them back because they were too small. A keeper has to be at least one inch thick. We decided to try another method the rental shack man told us about: searching with our bare feet. Removing our shoes, we threw them into the clam bucket and ground our heels into the muddy sand, twisting like Chubby Checker.
“Feel for a rock with your toes,” I told Brad. We added a couple more clams to the bucket and returned a couple more to their sandy bed.
After nearly an hour of dragging the rake and squishing our feet around in the sand, nine good-sized clams, each a triumphant treasure, lay in the bottom of the clam basket.
We waded back to the shore. I could taste the chowder already.
Back at the campsite, I scrubbed the ridged shells and laid them gently in my cast iron Dutch oven on our camp stove. After pouring in a little water, I lit the gas flame to steam open the clams. Remembering the sea otters in Monterey Bay smashing their shellfish open with a rock, I was glad I wouldn’t have to resort to their technique.
While the clams steamed, Brad and I put on dry clothes. Then I chopped an onion, a leek, and three potatoes.
I checked the clams. All were yawning wide, revealing tender white meat the shell once protected. I transferred them with their liquid into a pitcher to cool and tossed butter into the now-empty kettle. When the butter sizzled, the onions and leeks went into the pot.
I chose a cooled clam from the pitcher, its delicate morsel still clinging to the pearly inner surface of the shell. I had never cleaned fresh clams before, and their tenderness surprised me even as their slipperiness made them difficult to handle.
With pride and hope, I chopped my nine clammy trophies and slid them into the pot along with the broth left from steaming open the clams.
My potatoes went in next. The clam broth barely covered the white cubes. I left the chowder to bubble.
While the potatoes cooked, I built up our campfire. The coals had been smoldering all day, so a few dry twigs under a pyramid of logs started a blaze. Our campsite filled with the scent of our chowder mixed with the salty air blowing in from the bay and the wood smoke wafting from the campfire.
Another camper walked by our site.
“You from Texas?” he asked, eyeing the license plate on our pickup.
“No,” I answered. “We live in Reston, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. We just moved there.”
The man sauntered on, satisfied.
But the real answer was more complicated.
I grew up in an agricultural town – population 244, depending on who is home on any given day – in rural southwestern Nebraska. I changed bedrooms once, but lived in the same house for eighteen years before I graduated from high school and moved away to college. As a child, I knew I belonged to Hayes Center, Nebraska. No matter where we live now, rural Nebraskan culture still shapes how I move in the world. At thirty-two years old, I haven’t lived in Hayes Center for fourteen years. But I drink pop instead of soda and cheer for my home state’s Cornhuskers. I clip my words when I speak, and I still gawk at tall buildings and marvel at public transportation. I breathe more easily under a clear blue open sky. Hayseed grows in my heart.
Since marrying a man in the Army, I haven’t stopped moving. But I am from Nebraska.
Brad was born in a hospital in Iowa, so even though we never lived there, he often tells people he is from Iowa. What else is he supposed to say? He has lived many places. He doesn’t really belong to any one of them the way I belong to Nebraska.
I want what every mother wants for her son: I want him to grow into a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, productive man. But I worry that Brad cannot be any of those things unless I give him more time to live in one place, letting the rhythms of its people and landscape sink into him.
Back at our campsite, I checked a potato in my chowder pot, and it nearly dissolved under my fork. Perfect. I turned off the camp stove burner and added the final touch to the pot: heavy cream.
While I worked, a small group of Assateague’s famous horses with their shaggy coats, stocky stature, and bloated bellies wandered toward our campsite. As the horses drew closer, my son became nervous and hid in the pickup cab. A park ranger had told him that in the summer during high tourist season, a horse bites at least one visitor every week. The feral animals protect their territory and their food.
Clicking my tongue and banging an empty cup against a plate, I tried to shoo the horses away from our site. They eyed me warily and moved on.
I ladled chowder into two blue enamel bowls while Brad hovered near my elbow, excited for his favorite meal. We perched on our camp chairs next to the fire and savored a moment of anticipation before tasting the chowder.
“Cheers!” I said, raising my bowl.
“Cheers!” he echoed, touching his bowl against mine.
I grinned at him, my spoon to my lips.
Salty clams and broth mingled in my mouth with velvety potatoes melting into rich cream. Savory onions and leeks lingered at the edges of my tongue. The simple ingredients melded like ripples merging to form waves.
I’ll never cook with a can of rubbery, watery clams again as long as I live.
“How’s your chowder?” I asked Brad.
“It’s the best I ever had! The best chowder anyone ever made ever!” He was as enthusiastic as I felt.
We ate in silence. Finally, I leaned back in my camp chair, having eaten more creamy clammy goodness than my stomach could bear. The fire snapped and crackled. I sipped a beer.
Brad groaned. “I’m so full, Mama,” he told me. “I can’t move.”
He threw his head back and closed his eyes. I let a lazy, satisfied sleepiness creep into my body.
Soon I would have to clean up our dishes. The fire needed another log. Our wet, sandy clamming clothes lay in a pile next to our tent. Always little chores at a campsite. But for a few comfortable moments, I just sat by the fire next to my son with a belly full of clam chowder.
My mind drifted back to another clam chowder day, the two of us balanced on a boulder next to the bay savoring a shared cup of chowder. What makes us belong to a place even when we live a rootless, nomadic existence, like the sand that blows across Assateague Island? In that moment by our campfire, smoky, creamy clam chowder memories anchored us to both the East Coast and the West Coast. My young son’s adventures bring a perspective to his life that my small-town upbringing could never have encompassed. Brad’s roots may be shallow, but they already stretch from coast to coast, held to the earth by the breadth of his experience rather than the amount of time he has lived in any one place.
Tucking the fireside chowder memory away next to the seaside one, I pulled myself out of my camp chair. I arranged our empty clamshells on a log next to the fire like someone else might display awards on a shelf.
We caught them. We cooked them. And they were good.
Author’s Note: I pass my children pieces of my childhood by experiencing the world with them, just like my mom and dad did for me
Vanessa Wamsley writes science, nature and education stories in northern Alabama where she lives with her husband, Jake; son, Brad; and daughter, Nora. Her recent work has appeared in Slate, Modern Notion, and The Atlantic.