While there are plenty of things that I never really envisioned for myself when I took the leap into full time food writing, spending several days reading about the sexual maturation of clams might rank at the top of the list of surprises so far. But whether or not that was part of my dream job as I would have articulated it, it happened. The occasion for this particular foray into scientific literature combined topics far closer to my heart: locally produced food, cooperative organizing, and sustainability.
This spring, creative director Alex Peltz brought photographer Chris Sembrot and I on to help tell the story of a group of New Jersey clammers working hard to shore up the Jersey coast's sustainable shellfish industry. While each co-op member has his own business propagating, planting, and harvesting clams in New Jersey's bays and estuaries, this small group of producers have also recognized that they'll be able to access a wider market for their products if they work together. To that end, they've partnered with New Jersey Cooperative Extension and the Keystone Development Center to form the Heritage Shellfish Cooperative.
Before this project I had no idea how clam aquaculture works. I was entirely ignorant of the fact that the littlenecks in linguini vongole can represent a year or more of growth, and that clams the size of your palm are an order of magnitude older than the chicken on your plate, than even the beef in your burger.
Raising clams and oysters is more like planting an orchard than it is like fishing. It means tending to a crop every week of the year. Even winter mornings require the wetsuit-clad work of scraping algae off of the screens that protect the clams from predators on the bay floor, to ensure that they have enough water flow.
From the shoreline spawning tanks to the hard work of hand-harvesting - backbreaking labor requiring a rake and a sturdy constitution - I have so much respect for these co-op members. I wish them every success in their business and I'm delighted to have been able to see their work and to tell their story.