Sunday, February 28, 2010
Every family has their own traditions, and habits. They range from the mundane – which car window does each kid sit by, who eats mustard and who eats ketchup – to seasonal rituals, and particularly holiday rituals – do you open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and what are the traditional holiday meals? These traditions develop over the years, and seem unremarkable within the family circle because that's the way that it is always done. When I met Mary and took her to Tillamook for our first Christmas with my family, she was confronted with our unusual traditional Christmas Eve dinner of clam chowder and hot dogs. The roots of this tradition lay thirty years earlier in my childhood.
My family, my parents, and three grandparents grew up in Tillamook County, Oregon. Tillamook Bay is the second largest bay on the Oregon coast, about six miles long and several miles across. It is fed by five rivers and surrounded by the great forests of the Coast Range. During the early part of the twentieth century, this was a major logging area.
But in 1933, a great forest fire known as the Tillamook Burn destroyed a huge area of the forest. It was the largest single forest fire in North America until the horrible western fires of 2002. But the 1933 wasn't alone. More fires happened on a six year cycle in 1939, 1945, and 1951, feeding on the downed trees and also burning additional acres.
One result of all these forest fires was that a large amount of mud and silt was carried from the hills into Tillamook Bay. At low tides, the mud becomes exposed as great expanses of tide flats. This is not a smooth bed of mud - it has features that become exposed as the tide falls. Some areas are sticky mud, others are relatively sandy. From high tide to low tide, the water in the Bay falls almost twelve feet. There are intricate networks of channels carved by the water as it flows out of the bay twice each day. The larger channels can be as large as four feet deep and tens of feet across, filled with rushing water escaping the bay. Imagine a badlands landscape lurking underneath the flat surface of the full bay at high tide.
The sandier sections of the bay bottom are home to a kind of clam called a cockle. They are good in clam chowder. Like other fishing and hunting activities, the state sets a limit on how many cockles you can take. When I was little, the limit was 36 cockles per "hunter" per day. So sometime around the age of six, my brother and I became assistant cockle hunters.
The areas where the cockles live are not necessarily nearest the shore of the bay. (Or if they were, someone else probably cleaned out those easy pickings long ago.) So we had to walk quite a ways out on the tidal flats to get to the clam beds. The best way to allow enough time to walk out, find clams, and walk back before the tide comes back in is to go clamming at an extra low tide. Extra low tides happen during a full or new moon, and the low tide itself is when the sun and moon are on the horizon - either dawn or dusk. Dusk is not an option - it would leave us out in the bay after the sun went down. So going clamming meant getting up in the dark, well before dawn, so that we could be at the tide flats and walk out on the bay as the tide was still falling toward its lowest point.
Clamming trips happened mostly on Saturday mornings. School days were not an option, because we would have arrived back home too late to go to school, and Dad had to go to work. But there must been have times when Sunday had a lower tide than Saturday, so I think we occasionally got to skip church in order to go clamming.
As a six year old, getting up before dawn was a tough sell. It was certainly not clear why we had to get up in the dark, put on barn boots, and drive to the bay. When we arrived at the bay, we drove out on a jetty that had two split-level single lane roads. The lower road, on the side of the jetty, was outbound, and the road on top of the jetty was the return direction. When I was six, I was always concerned about what would happen if we encountered a driver that didn't understand the directional system – there was no room to pass. (This was before I understood things like "one-way" signs.) Once parked, we walked a half hour or more out over a cold, foggy, muddy bay bottom, carrying cockle rakes and buckets. The route was not straight - we had to skirt or wade the various channels of water draining the bay. Some of these were fun to splash across; some of them Dad had to help us or carry us; some were so big that we had to go upstream to find a crossing. The mud was horrible. You have to learn to walk with your feet well apart. Each foot gathers a large clump of sticky mud. If your feet brush against each other, the clump of mud spreads a little higher on each boot as you walk, until eventually, the entire inside of your legs are smeared with mud, up past your boots and onto your jeans. There is a never-ending new supply of mud on your boots, so more and more mud climbs up your legs. In the early years, I always arrived home a muddy mess. Adding to my discomfort, the rich ecosystem of the tidal flats has a strong fishy smell.
Cockles are not wily prey. They live a few inches under the sand. You rake the sand with a cockle rake - a three or four prong rake with very long teeth. When you hear or feel a click, you have hit either a buried rock or a cockle. Luckily for cockle hunters, cockles do not have an advanced escape behavior. When you click against them, they "clam up" - they close their shell tightly and hope you go away. Against most predators, this works. In the case of the cockle hunter, you just make a deeper stroke over the same area where you heard the click, and up comes a cockle. Or a rock.
To be within the letter of the law, we had to carry our cockles in our own bucket, our own cockle rake, and dig up the cockles ourselves. When we very young, Dad would find likely areas, possibly even getting a click, then we would dig them up. By later grade school years, we got the hang of finding them ourselves. The clams have a little feeder hole running to the surface, and sometimes they will squirt as you are walking above them. You also eventually develop a feel for what patches of mud and feeder tubes are going to yield a clam. Travel also got faster, because we could wade the same channels as Dad and not take as many detours, and I eventually got the hang of walking with my feet apart so that I just had the muddy clump on my feet and not all the way up my legs. Later my sister joined us as another clam gatherer, and we could share the job of helping her over the deep spots. As I reached teenage years, I also grew to appreciate the sight of the sun rising over the tree covered mountains surrounding the miles of wide bay and tidal flats, often to then disappear into the layer of coast overcast. (Although I did not appreciate it enough to turn me into a morning person - I may have seen as many dawns from staying up late as from getting up early.)
We gathered clams for a couple of hours, depending on when we had arrived and when the tide began to turn. The return trip was a much heavier load. Large cockles can be four or five inches across, about as big as a fist, so a bucket of thirty-six became quite heavy. The return route might be easier if the channels has emptied more water since the time we went out; but depending on when we arrived compared to the low tide, water might be starting back in and we would have to choose a different route.
Once we got home, the next phase began. We had a large copper kettle that we filled with water, dumped in the clams, and built a fire under. As the water heated, the clams would begin to open. This would allow Dad to pry them open with a stout knife and cut the clam away from the shell. In my teenage years, I also took on this task. You have to be careful - prying open a clam with a sharp knife requires just the right pressure and direction, or you wind up cutting yourself instead of the clam.
Once the clams were out of the shell, they became Mom's domain, for making clam chowder. Clam chowder was a Sunday evening meal. Mom, Dad and Grandma liked clam chowder. We kids didn't. It's a dish that takes some time to prepare. I thought of it as a long, smelly process. It began with frying chopped bacon, adding chopped onions when the bacon was partly cooked, and cooking until the bacon was crispy. As a kid, I hated the smell of frying onions in bacon fat. (Telling it now, it sounds pretty good.) The bacon and onions were added to a big pot with the clams, water, diced potatoes and seasoning, and the whole thing placed on low heat for a long while, adding condensed milk near the end. Clams have a somewhat fishy, gamy smell, which just added to my olfactory distress.
So at Sunday dinner, this was a meal for Mom, Dad, and Grandma. But in the interest of learning new foods, we were each required to eat a token amount of chowder on the bottom of our soup bowl. We hid the clam taste by adding an equal volume of saltine crackers. We discovered that if you place an unbroken cracker in the thin layer of chowder, it will slowly expand to almost double its original size as it slowly absorbs the liquid. Once we had finished playing with crackers and eating our chowder, we were allowed to have one of our favorite foods: hot dogs. The net result was that we actually looked forward to clam chowder days, because once we got past the chowder, we could have hot dogs.
Many of the clams were frozen for later in the year. Besides Sunday dinner, clam chowder was also the traditional meal on Christmas Eve, accompanied by fried oysters (also from Tillamook Bay.) This meant there were also the requisite hot dogs. As we kids got older, we all acquired the taste for clam chowder; but the hot dog chaser never went away. It just seemed obvious that chowder went with hot dogs. And it remained that way thirty years later when I took Mary home for Christmas.
-- Tom Wilson, San Francisco, 9/11/2005