It’s a drizzly late March morning at Hood Canal, a fjord-like arm of Washington State’s Puget Sound two hours west of Seattle. The air is briny and pungent. Douglas-fir trees and fog-shrouded inlets dot the shoreline. Bald eagles soar overhead while dozens of harbor seals bob in the water.
Armed with a shovel, a hand trowel and a five-gallon bucket, I’m attired in hip waders and neoprene. I slosh through the shallow water — stumbling over oyster shells, tufts of eel grass and starfish — searching for telltale, two-inch, oval holes in the sand from which the tip of a mollusk siphon may protrude (a visual cue known as a “show”).
The elusive creature I seek is Panopea generosa (a Latin name that will seem far more hilarious when you check out the gallery below), the geoduck clam. At first glance, the geoduck is unarguably, hideously, phallic — there’s no polite way…ahem….around it.
Possessed of a leathery neck, or siphon, that stretches up to three feet in length, the world’s largest burrowing clam tends to freak Americans out. In Asia, it’s revered as a delicacy and aphrodisiac, yet it’s native to the waters of the Pacific Northwestern U.S.
[Photo credits: Langdon Cook]
%Gallery-151127%I, too, found geoduck disturbing, until I moved to Seattle, and found a small pile of it on my plate while dining at Spring Hill, award-winning chef Mark Fuller’s restaurant (recently rechristened Ma’ono). Dressed with a tart lemon peel relish, the meat was slightly sweet and briny, with a subtle, satisfying crunch. Fuller loves geoduck for its ease of preparation, and “mild, clean flavor and snappy texture.” He prefers to serve it raw, with some citrus, olive oil and a bit of coarse sea salt. The “king” clam is also used as sashimi, sautéed or hot-smoked.
Seattle forager, author (Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21th Century Forager, Skipstone Press), food blogger, and back-to-the-land Renaissance man Langdon Cook prefers geoduck in an Asian-inspired ceviche, marinated with lime juice, a touch of fish sauce and brown sugar, and diced red onion, Serrano chile and shredded, green (unripe) papaya or mango.
Since I love tracing food to its source, I asked Lang to take me ‘duck hunting. After catching the ferry to Bainbridge Island, we drove to the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula; Hood Canal has a number of state parks with wild geoduck. While not seasonal, March is when mandatory harvest licenses are issued; you can obtain them here through the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Low tides in July and August are ideal for geoduck harvest, because it stays light late, and the weather is at its best.
At Dosewallips Tide Flat (part of a lovely state park), we discovered the water higher than anticipated, but fortunately, we had Taylor Shellfish Farms manager John Adams to provide his considerable expertise. Instead of digging in sand, we’d be shoveling against the clock in heavy, sticky substrate. Despite this setback and even in drizzling rain, the aesthetics were spellbinding.
When I finally spotted a show, after much difficulty and with the help of my geoduck-senseis, we laboriously dug a three-foot-deep pit adjacent to the clam in the gloppy, shell-laden substrate. Since it was my story, I had the glory of actually winnowing the recalcitrant little bastard out of its burrow.
Immersed to the shoulder, sodden and stinking of tidal effluence, I finally manage to extract the clam. I triumphantly fist-pumped my three-pound prize in the air, while its leathery siphon drooped to the side like a dehydrated tongue. We capped off the day by collecting a bucket of littleneck clams from the beach, and then Lang took me to his home in Seattle for a tutorial on removing the “gut ball” from a geoduck. Unsurprisingly, gut ball soup is also a delicacy in Asia, but I can safely say this particular food trend won’t be catching on in mainstream America. You can quote me on that.
I went home with my siphon (I generously left Lang with the shell and gut ball; he did, after all, do most of the digging), and made sashimi. You know what? It tasted damn good. So did the clam linguine that followed.
Puget Sound’s Taylor Shellfish, a fifth-generation, sustainable mariculture farm, is the world’s largest producer of farmed geoduck. They’re sold live at Taylor’s retail shop in Capitol Hill in Seattle or online, $24.95 per pound (minimum two pounds). To order, click here. The site also features a video on how to clean and prepare geoduck.