September Clamming on Cape Cod
See You in September
The Cape has changed over the years. Box turtles are rare, as are striped bass. But September is still the most glorious month to be on the sand flats. Cape Cod still has an abundance of oysters, mussels and clams.
September is when Cape Cod’s tourists and locals have gone back to work and school. Beach parking no longer requires a permit, and the temperature drops. The air becomes crystalline clear. Colors sharpen, white clouds tumble in blue skies during the day. Evenings on the sand flats are violet and pink and gold.
My parents have had a home in Wellfleet, the narrowest part of the Cape, for over fifty years. My father took his three children fishing from shore when striped bass were plentiful and the only sharks we knew of were small sand sharks that would take the bait and have to be thrown back into the sea where they would likely take the bait again. On rainy days our whole family would take walks. My dad, a biology teacher, would point out the remains of whale bones in the woods and Native American shell middens near the shore. We would look for, and leave undisturbed, orange-and-black spotted box turtles. In midsummer we picked blueberries that my mother would make into pies. In late summer there were wild rose hips for making jelly. When the weather and tide were right, we went clamming, and my dad would make baked stuffed clams.
Clams: Fried, Frittered, Chowdered, and Pied
The indigenous people of Cape Cod, the Wampanoag, ate large clams known as quahogs, and carved the purple-and-white shells into tubular beads used for decoration and currency. When the British colonists arrived on Cape Cod in 1620, their survival depended in part on what they learned from the native people, which included the harvesting of shellfish. Clams were breaded and fried whole, put into pies, chopped and made into fritters, and cooked with bacon, potatoes and cream into hearty chowder.
Today, a local license is required to collect shellfish, and at low tide whole families can be seen on the flats with shovels, clam rakes, and wire clamming baskets. Even young children are excited to help.
It used to be thought that shellfish should be eaten only in months with an “R” in them.This sprang from a concern about increased bacteria in warmer water and the possibility of seafood spoiling in hot weather when food was stored on ice. Monitoring of local waters and modern refrigeration made that guideline unnecessary. At the rare times when it is inadvisable to harvest shellfish, the popular clam flats on Cape Cod are posted with warnings.
New Dangers, Old Comforts
When I was a teenager we swam at the ocean beaches, body-surfing in rough water that came up to our necks and lifted us off our feet as it surged to shore. The frigid water was shocking when we plunged in, gasping, then we quickly became numb. When we left the water, blue with cold, to throw ourselves onto the hot sand, it was to warm ourselves just enough to go running back in. There were no seals and no sharks near shore. The dark head of a seal on the harborside was a once-a-summer sighting.
It’s not news that the shores of the Cape, especially on the open “ocean” side, are now heavily populated with seals, and with them, their predators, great white sharks. Surfers still venture into the churning ocean, but families tend to swim in the tranquil waters of the bay beaches and numerous freshwater kettle-ponds formed by glaciers 12,000 years ago. While the landscape and recreational use of Cape Cod has evolved, classic regional foods and recipes remain.
Baked Stuffed Clams: The Recipe
I’m not sure where his recipe came from, but my dad, who had been a cook in the U.S. Merchant Marines, improvised most of his cooking and certainly put a personal twist on everything he put his hand to. His Baked Stuffed Clams were a family favorite.