Much like scents, flavors can have remarkable powers over our minds. Even a small taste of just the right flavor can, as Proust so eloquently described – at length – in his À la recherche du temps perdu, unlock a veritable treasure chest of memories. For myself, it’s the flavors from my childhood that seem to have the greatest ability to send my mind whirling back through time. Raspberries and salmonberries, Astoria cinnamon toast and pannukakku – and razor clams. Indeed, as I discovered when reading David Berger’s Razor Clams; Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest, even the well-written description of a flavor can possess this remarkable mnenosynic ability.
As a young boy growing up in Astoria, both my father and mother worked in the commercial fishing industry, as did many of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and the majority of people we knew. As my father and mother both worked during the day – and my father often all night as well during salmon seasons – I was often cared for by an older Finnish housewife named Frieda; to me – then as always – “Nana.” Her husband Orvo, “Papa,” also worked in the fishing industry, but not as a fisherman – rather at a local factory that made fishmeal. His fishing was purely recreational – steelhead and sturgeon, as well as digging Pacific Razor Clams.
Whenever he had a good stock of clams in the freezer, my parents, picking me up from Nana and Papa’s home that evening, would stay for a supper of Nana’s special razor clam fritters. The unique sweetness of the clams encased in the crisp, slightly salty batter (Nana’s own recipe, of course) is a taste unlike any other I’ve ever experienced – and the taste that immediately came to mind when Berger first described the unique taste of Pacific Razor Clams in his book.
Of course, this is not a review of a cookbook – although Berger does include in his work a generous selection of recipes for preparing the ivory-colored flesh of the title bivalves. It is, rather, a reflection upon a Berger’s research into and personal experiences with Pacific Razor Clams (Siliqua patula), their natural history, their place in the commercial and recreational marine resources industries, and the cultural traditions that have developed around them. Yet make no mistake, this is no dry, academic tome; Berger’s writing style is delightfully personal, peppered generously with side comments and the very human observations that would be expected in most any conversation about the subject.
And “very human” is the quality Berger most clearly brings out in his book. For unlike recreational fishing, shellfish gathering, or crabbing, where significant equipment and much skill generally needs to be acquired before success becomes regular, the hunt – for indeed a “hunt” it is – for Pacific Razor Clams requires little more than a thin-bladed shovel, and the willingness to get cold and wet on a Pacific Northwest beach. Just like Uncle Fester’s famous advice to niece Wednesday and nephew Pugsley during the game of “Wake the Dead” at the conclusion of The Addams Family, “Children, you have to dig; that’s half the fun!”
From families willing to drive long distances to reach the prime clam digging beaches of southern Washington’s coast, to the members of the Quinault nation who have for centuries relied on the clams as an important source of food and more recently through commercial digging as a source of income, to the bears who wield their enormous paws to extract these tasty treats from southern-eastern Alaskan beaches, digging is the only way they can be obtained.
Supremely evolved for life in the sandy, broad, flat inter-tidal zones of the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Razor Clam is a master of vertical movement. From their feeding positions just below the surface where they feast on the waves of diatoms washing over them with each passing wave, to the rapid vertical descents they can make through the sand by means of their stream-lined shell and single, powerful digging foot if disturbed (or pursued), these clams share none of the sedentary habits of many of their taxonomic relatives.
Of course, like many filter feeders, the dietary habits of Pacific Razor Clams also make them susceptible to such phenomena as the bacteria that causes NIX and blooms of the domoic acid producing phytoplankton Pseudo-nitzschia; both of which have afflicted the clams as well as those who seek to harvest them in recent years. Indeed, entire harvest seasons have required cancellation in recent years due to such outbreaks, bringing hardship upon both the First Nation and coastal tourism economies (although curiously, unlike NIX, domoic acid build-up does not seem to cause any damage to the clams themselves). Berger addresses all these matters, of course, presenting what is often somewhat difficult-to-understand matters of bio-ecology and wildlife management in a manner that all can clearly and correctly understand.
As a work of natural history, socio-economic history, and last but certainly not least gastronomic instruction, David Berger’s Razor Clams; Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest is a true delight. Well worth reading by anyone interested in its many-faceted narrative, it should be considered an absolutely essential book for those living on, near, or simply visiting the Pacific Northwest coast. But be advised – you won’t be too long in reading it before a sudden craving for clam fritters or chowder takes hold.
Author: David Berger
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Format: hardcover; 224 pp. with 60 black & white illustrations
Published: September 2017
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.