Welcome to the Clambake
We’ve all heard the bad guy tell his nervous partner to “clam up.” Or have someone tell us that a cold, damp place has a “clammy” feeling.
You might think this is all giving clams a bad name, but then there’s the old saying that someone is “happy as a clam.” Though I guess you could say that living buried in sand under cold seawater puts a strong damper on “happy,” so maybe being happy as a clam isn’t saying much. But I regress.
The point is that clams (the kind you eat, not the money in your pocket, which confusion might happen if you are old enough) are an honored tradition in Pismo Beach. Actually, the clams that were once a huge attraction in Pismo are called the Pismo Clam, so the town and the clam share a name that is derived from the Chumash Indian word pismu which means “tar.”
Well, this might be a little confusing too, since neither the town nor the clams are actually tarry. We’ll clear it all up some other time.
For now, you might be interested to know that once upon a time there were so many clams on our beautiful white sand beach that people drove graders over the top of the sand to expose thousands of clams at a time. This happened as late as 1949 when the beaches that had been closed to clamming for 20 years re-opened, and clams were on for dinner again.
The Pismo clam is one of the largest edible clams, and most people like its taste. The largest one on record was found in Pismo Beach, with a diameter of about 7.4 inches (if you’d like lots more factoids like this, and even some good history and science, the CA Fish and Game agency has published a nice PDF with the catchy title “Pismo Clam”).
In the early part of the 20th century, up to about 1910, clams were used in animal food. Then humans decided they were so good that they just about fished them out of existence locally, and started importing them from Baja California. World War II put a temporary stop to clamming or much else on the Pacific beaches due to fear of Japanese and/or the use of the beachfront for military operations and training.
The Pismo Clam still exists with healthy populations on some eastern Pacific beaches south of Monterey. There are actually not many left in Pismo itself, which some attribute to the return of the sea otters (by one estimate, a single sea otter would need to eat about 80 Pismo clams per day if that was its main food source), though the clams had been heavily fished by humans before the otters came back.
Today you too can go clamming. You need a saltwater fishing license, which you can buy locally in Pismo Beach. Then you get your forked clamming tool, and head out to look for the now-elusive clam – you cannot take them if they are smaller than 4 ½ inches in diameter, and your limit is 10 per day. Good luck.
A dry alternative is to try some of SeaVenture’s awesome clam chowder. But we do not guarantee the clams came from our beach.
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