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The Mast-Head: Gum Them Clams

Thu, 12/29/2022 - 10:18

My brother, Dan, he of inimitable wisdom about food, used to say that one could survive perfectly well eating nothing other than brown rice and clams. I see no reason to have disagreed. Between the two are all the essential food groups — starches and fiber from rice and protein and minerals from clams. One might say there would even be a salad course — phytoplankton in clams’ guts. Such was the Bonacker secret to a long life, he said.

One thought about the human species’ migration out of Africa that we on the East End might relate to is that our ancestors followed the coasts, dining on shellfish as they moved along. Neanderthals also appear to have had a similar taste in food; there is a lot of evidence that they were catching and cooking shellfish in Italy about 110,000 years ago. Not only did our hominid cousins eat clams, they made tools of their shells, too.

Along the North American coast in what is today British Columbia, native people were growing butter clams as much as 3,500 years ago. That is relatively new news, though; clam harvesters were well established in the region by 9,000 years ago.

Across the road from the house Dan and I and our sister, Bess, grew up in, clues that native people had had a meal of clams at some time in the pre-Colonial past would become exposed in a low sand bluff after a heavy rain. But if the site had been an encampment, it had been only for a couple of nights. There were fragments of thin clay pots and just a handful of shells amid what seemed to us to have been the charcoal left by a single fire.

Nearby, we found chips of white quartz from toolmaking. A new house occupies the site now, its driveway where we kids once played archaeologist. One of the largest shell middens created by native people on Long Island was at Three Mile Harbor, near where I kept a boat. It, too, is probably now under a house or someone’s lawn. One description put it at 10 feet high and 60 feet long. Someone was living well.

The long lives described on the stones in the old burying grounds around here, I believe, had a lot to do with the amount of seafood people ate. An anecdote that I half-remember about an aged woman from East Hampton goes, “She might not have any teeth, but she sure can gum them clams.” That’s about as Bonac as it gets. We should all be so lucky.

These winter days are good for clamming. There is not much else to do on the water, and a chowder feels right when it gets dark by 4:30 in the afternoon and the north wind crackles over the shingles and taps at the window panes.

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