I really want to be a total vegetarian, I really do, but occasionally I have been known to lapse. And when i lapse, it's because of clams. I love clams. I love them fried, in chowders, I love them stuffed, steamed or raw. I excuse it by thinking: of all the things I could cheat with, clams strike me as the most innocuous. Maybe because the no-face issue doesn't really apply to them, and I eat them once in a while without all the guilt and ethical dilemmas that the other stuff seems to present. So when they were featured in a local supermarket last week, big mesh bags of clams sitting resolutely and stoically in their black shells on mountains of ice, I dithered for a few minutes in front of the fish department before I finally bought them.
The cashier put them in a separate bag, away from the skim milk I also bought, the butter substitute. the Greek yogurt, and the no-flavor-no-color- puffy wheat thingies-the-size-of-hubcaps-but-only-12-calories that i snack on, and home I went. I had visions of clam chowder, of stuffed clams, of fritters. After all, there were over three dozen, all waiting to be turned into a culinary experience.
Except I don't know a thing about clams.
I know nothing about keeping them - uh - alive- until you ate them. And i had been strictly warned by the fish monger to keep them alive or they would poison me, a sort of clammy revenge. Keep them on ice, I was told, until you are ready to cook them. Be very careful, I was told, because if they open their mouths, that's the end of it, it's too late. It all sounded quite nervewracking. I had never considered that there would be handling problems, but that was because i had never prepared clams. When i want clams, I just go out to a restaurant and order them and they appear a few minutes later, all done up with cocktail sauce and little round crackers and lemon. I didn't know you had to be a clam wrangler.
So, I put them on the kitchen counter and stared at them. They stared back. Or at least it seemed that they did. I started to worry about them. I felt like I had brought home three dozen pets and I was responsible for their welfare. I decided they looked too dry, too thirsty, and put them into a big pot, filled the pot with water and went on the internet to find out how to keep them happy and healthy until - uh they were - uh - you know - cooked.
The first thing i learned is that they are not fresh water animals. They needed salt water. What had I done! What havoc was i wreaking upon their poor little salt water bodies with my well water.
"Oh no!" I shrieked and raced into the kitchen to quickly brew something more habitable.
My daughter, Robin, was watching me. "Are you sure you're up for this?" she asked. "Remember the lobsters?" Indeed I did.
When she was about twelve, her father brought home several huge lobsters for dinner. Following his instructions, i put them into a big pot and put the pot on the stove to boil. A few minutes later, they had lifted the lid and climbed out of the pot, leapt off the stove, a la Annie Hall, and were skittering across the floor, pissed as all hell. At least it seemed like that to me. I remember staring down at them too, like I had with the clams and feeling the same kind of sympathy and guilt. But dinner was dinner. I picked them up and put them back into the pot, they climbed out again. I had come face to face with a moral dilemma. Did I have the right to end their lives like this? It was cruel. I grabbed them around their waists and carefully put them into a shopping bag, ordered the kids into the car and drove to the Long Island Sound, which at the time, was a mile or two from our house. We stood at the water's edge as I opened the bag. The lobsters crawled out slowly, waved their whiskers in the air, maybe smelling the fresh sea air and dashed for the open water. My kids cheered. The lobsters were cheering - I'm pretty sure - and i was crying as some one hundred dollars worth of dinner disappeared into the undertow. We had spaghetti that night, but i knew i did the right thing.
Which leads me back to the clams.
They were looking a little peaked by now. Some of them had their mouths open. I poured the water out and filled a shopping bag with ice and picked them up, one by one, and put them on the ice.
"They're pretty sandy," I commented to my daughter.
"I think you have to run them through water," she said, "like giving them a bath. And you have to scrub them."
I looked at them doubtfully. "Scrub them?" I repeated.
"With a brush," she said. "To clean them."
It was like a clam spa. I brushed them very gently, even their undersides, and patted them dry with my best fuzzy kitchen towel and put them on a bed of ice to nap the night away while I considered what to do with them. I put them to sleep in the fridge.
The next morning they all had their mouths open. It was the end of them, it was too late. I had a mass clam passing on my hands.
"Did you tie the plastic grocery bag shut around them?" my daughter asked.
"Of course," I said. "I wanted to give them some privacy in the refrigerator. You know, i have about a dozen eggs in there. You know how eggs are. Nosy. They're into everything."
"That's what went wrong," she said. "They suffocated. They need air."
Clams need air? Is nothing simple?
"You may as well put them outside for the raccoons," my daughter said. I did.
Apologizing to them one by one, I tossed three dozen clams, over the garden fence so that the wild raccoons that live out there somewhere could have clams on the half shell, maybe with those cute little round crackers and coctail sauce. I had been responsible for the untimely demise of three dozen innocent sea creatures. It was awful. They had spent the night cold and airless.
But at least they were clean.