Mossback’s Northwest: Keep Clam and Carry On

From Indigenous origin stories to restaurateur Ivar Haglund, the bivalves have become an edible emblem of Puget Sound beaches.

According to the Haida First Nations people of the northern British Columbian coast, the origins of humanity began on a beach. Raven found a large clam shell and noticed some creatures protruding from it and squirming inside. He coaxed the reluctant creatures to come out and join the rest of the world. They were the first men.

It seems apt that a clam shell would be part of an origin story in the coastal Pacific Northwest. Thousands of years of shell middens — old refuse deposits — are testament to shellfish’s role in sustaining people here. The variety and abundance of clam shells show they were a crucial source of food, proof of the old adage “When the tide is out, the table is set.” Let’s hear it for the quiet, unsung — well, barely sung — bivalve, the clam.

The receding of the glaciers left behind a pleasant homeland for shellfish. Clams were accessible on sandy beaches. On Haida Gwaii, the Haida’s island homeland, people were living sustainably on game and shellfish as early as nearly 11,000 years ago, not long after the ice retreated and Raven coaxed humanity into the daylight. Indigenous people throughout the Northwest coast dug for clams, carrying special clam baskets and using digger sticks to chase them down. Many middens were the result of processing large numbers of clams, which were often smoked and dried for later consumption or trade. Dried and smoked clams made their way over the mountains. People far from the sea could still enjoy some briny goodness.

The cultivation of clam beds by Indigenous people is one phenomenon that is being revived. Many Native peoples made “clam gardens.” Some argue the term is a misnomer because the gardens involved a variety of techniques and serious heavy lifting. Shorelines were re-engineered to expand sandy beaches. Rocks were removed to increase clam habitat. Walls and revetments were erected to improve cultivation. Aquaculture here is thousands of years old.

Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly “Nootka”) women with baskets for hunting clams. (Northwestern University)

Another, more local, origin story involving clams relates to the beginnings of modern Seattle. The Denny Party, Euro-American settlers credited with starting the city, landed at Alki Point on a chilly, wet November day in 1851. They marked a new wave of settlers on Puget Sound. Among the party was a baby, Rolland Denny, just two months old. His mother, Mary Ann, was sick and couldn’t produce milk, so Duwamish women taught her to nurture tiny Rolland on clam broth until she could. It worked. He lived to be a ripe 87 years old, the last survivor of the original Denny party.

Members of the original Denny Party in 1905. On the right, in the derby, is Rolland Denny. (Wikimedia)

Restaurateur Ivar Haglund capitalized on clams and kept the virtues of clam broth — or clam nectar — on menus with a winking suggestion that it might be an aphrodisiac. But he also promoted an old frontier song that said that the abundance of clams was the essence of the good life in Puget Sound country — especially for those not prosperous in farming, prospecting or any other frontier endeavor.

Haglund sang folk songs on the radio, and one of these was called “The Old Settler.” It was written by an Olympia lawyer, Francis Henry, and published in 1877. It ends like this:

“No longer the slave of ambition,

I laugh at the world and its shams

As I think of my pleasant condition,

Surrounded by acres of clams —

Surrounded by acres of cla-a-ams,

Surrounded by acres of clams,

A poor boy will never go hungry,

Surrounded by acres of clams!”

In other words, one could be as happy as a clam here. There are a number of different versions of the song, and the original had some objectionable lyrics. Haglund named his waterfront restaurant “Acres of Clams,” though he hardly gave up on ambition as an entrepreneur.

Ivar Haglund surrounded by acres of clams. (Ivars Restaurants)

The Olympia connection is interesting in a couple of ways. One is that in the 1860s, when the Washington Territory stretched as far east as Idaho, western Montana and a bit of Wyoming, political observers in the eastern parts felt a division of power between east and west. Today, people might complain about the Cascade east/west divide, but back in the day they grumbled about the politicos throwing their weight around in “clam country,” their epithet for Olympia-dominated politics.

And my college alma mater is The Evergreen State College in Olympia, whose founders named the geoduck as school mascot and the school motto is Omnia extares — translated as “Let it all hang out.” Which all made sense for what was launched as an alternative school in the 1960s.

No clam is more identifiable or as great a conversation piece than the geoduck, a Lushootseed word that relates to the clam’s prodigious digging abilities (it can go deep) and because of an appendage that cannot fit into its shell and can extend up to three feet. It is not a reproductive organ, by the way, but rather the clam’s “neck” through which it breaths and siphons sand and water. The geoduck is considered a delicacy and is used in sushi among other things.

And then there is chowder. In the Northwest, the popular version that caught on was creamy New England-style chowder — back in the day the region was not known for tomatoes, the basis of Manhattan-style clam chowder. Food historian Jacqueline Williams says by the 1880s New England-style chowder recipes began appearing in the first local cookbooks. Territorial cooks could reliably come by more ingredients, like flour, thanks to shipments from back East, and it’s a damp-weather, gut-warming tonic.

Men at a clambake in Fairfax, Wash., in the 1910s. (Washington State Historical Society)

Happy as a clam, quiet as a clam, “Keep Clam and Carry On.” Clams are the symbol of steady, contented existence. They’ve been feeding us for thousands of years — long after they attended our birth on a beach.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.