Opening 100 Clams
by Carl L. Biemiller
This article appeared in the very first edition of Holiday Magazine
March 1946, Vol. 1, No. 1, Curtis Publishing Co.
Biemiller was with Holiday at it's inception as an Associate Editor. He later became the magazine's Executive Editor.
The wind raced from a bank of surly clouds and poured through the slot in the sea that forms the North End inlet at Atlantic City, New Jersey. It tossed spindrift at a group of huddled gulls which stood, back to the surf, plotting a long trip elsewhere. It fingered hair and ruffled skirts and gobbled up noise to whirl it away across bay and salt meadow. Now and then it blew a sprinkling of rain over the crowd gathered in Clam Stadium.
Mr. Israel Weintraub, 300 pounds of jitney driver, leaned back in his contest chair, dabbed at his mouth with something less than Chesterfieldian grace, and explained his success in the clam derby.
“I am probably the best clam eater in the world,” he said, an’t’ be honest, I hate ‘em. I win because I am such a good chili sauce and horse-radish man. If they ever limit them items, I quit winnin’ eatin’ contests here. My record is one hun’erd and forty-six clams in twenty minutes. This year it’s good I ain’t hungry because I only need one hun’erd and twenty to win.”
Mr. Weintraub posed with a hot dog and a bottle of pop, carefully ate away their property value, and blandly reflected on the joys of fame. “I hear a threat about some guy from New York,” he remarked. “Comes from Fulton Fish Market, and is supposed to eat three hun’erd today. He don’t worry me none. He don’t show up. Them threats never do.”
Cheers interrupted the Weintraub soliloquy. An announcer bellowed through a megaphone. “Ladies and gen’lmun! The fastest time ever recorded for opening one hundred clams has just been made by James M. Ingley of Washington, D.C. His time—seven minutes and forty-seven seconds!”
A voice rose from a knot of bystanders. “That guy’s good. But I miss the old colored man from Maurice River—the preacher, Reverend Daniel White. Remember him? Opened clams in rhythm while he sang hymns.”
Another voice overlapped the conversation. “Yeah, the restaurant business has been terrific all year, and he’s got the dough. There’s his wife sittin’ with him like a plate of raws with pearls. Still I can’t get him to bet me a hundred bucks, head and head, his opener against my man.”
There is only one place in the world where such conversations fall on mortal ears. Pasadena has its Rose Bowl. Hollywood has its stars. New Orleans has its Mardi gras. Some years San Francisco has a Peace Conference. But only Atlantic City has the National Calm and Oyster Openers’ Tournament, a unique event that promises to become a standard addition to the nation’s regional combinations of sports, carnival, folklore and sheer fun.
Prior to 1943, Atlantic coastal clams and oysters spent most of their time in beds, minding their own business, and enhancing their reputations for having little to say. These succulent bivalves always seemed reasonably content even when bedded on ice with a piece of lemon, proud to contribute to stews, fries and bakes with little or no acclaim. But in 1943, a group of restaurant owners in Atlantic City decided that the many unsung craftsmen who shared the backstage life of the seafood business should break the traditional silence of the clam with an openers’ tournament.
Nobody knows exactly where it is going, but everybody has plans. Said Captain Clarence Starn, who is chairman of the tourney committee, and whose title comes from a fleet of fishing-party boats. “Some day you’ll see different sea-food cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington hold these contests. Maybe we’ll have a National Clam League. Nothing beats fun.”
More than 2500 people jammed Clam Stadium in 1943 to agree with him. A hurricane blew the thing into oblivion in 1944. The weather wasn’t much better in 1945 when an equinoctial northeaster blew its last gasps over the inlet. Yet by two in the afternoon, when the competing shuckers “knifed off” to open the first hundred clams against time, there were more than 1000 people in the drenched bleachers which circled an enclosed space in rough arena fashion.
They stayed to the end, too, a laughing crowd in sweat shirts, dungarees and sports clothes. There were kids and old men and uptown tourists from the boardwalk’s big hotels. There were quiet families and bright-light characters. The neat and tidy and the careless, because the event is free. The city foots the bills, puts up $1000 in prizes and even pays the transportation and hotel bills of the contestants.
The “eaters” may take the spotlight, but the event’s real heroes are those who compete for fun at something they also work at all week—the clam and oyster openers, a select and little-known group of craftsmen. They have their own lore and their own techniques—as any private citizen who has ever tried to open clams or oysters at home will know. Not for them the hammer, chisel, bayonets or axes with which the homing husband tackles the essential preliminary to a fine stew or some choice raws. These are experts, speed merchants in fine sea-food restaurants or markets. Some of them work in great canneries where the pay is on a piecework basis and time means money.
Most of them come to the tournament as representatives of well-known seaboard eating places. In 1943 some forty of the nation’s best “plate men”—the gentlemen responsible for your raws on the half shell—showed up. Tradition holds that the best plate men come from South Jersey’s Maurice River area and the sweeping flats of Chesapeake Bay, although Long Island Sound has its many local champions.
Most of the openers are born into the business. Father teaches son. “Old man” Mell, whose son Theodore won the oyster-opening contest in 1945, said, “The kid wasn’t bad today. He opened his hundred in ten minutes and thirty-seven seconds. But I opened a hundred in fifteen minutes yesterday and I’m seventy years old.”
It’s a good business, too; nothing spectacular, but steady. “We’re never out of work,” said Harvey Lehman, who has been at it most of his sixty-five years. “A good man, depending on the house he works in, makes between forty-five and seventy dollars a week.”
The quiet professionals are family men, and their families are fiercely proud of their skills. Ed Henry, of Washington, who won the “bullnose” clam contest and ranked second in the “cherrystone” division, brought his wife, Jean, to cheer him along.
Bivalve-opening techniques fall into two broad classes. Men are “stabbers” or they are “squeezers.” Oyster men, sharply divided from clam men, are mostly “hit and stab” experts.
“Stabbing” and “squeezing” mean exactly what you think. The clam men use a light, generally wooden-handled knife with a thin blade, costing about forty cents. Two of them jut from the hip pockets of contestants like Ed Henry. He stabs into the shell joint and cuts the tough bivalve muscle with one dexterous flip of the wrist, scoops beneath the clam and lifts, all in one flowing motion.
“It helps to have the clam or oyster well iced,” the experts said. “The cold numbs that big shell muscle. And, of course they added wryly, “it keeps your meat from spoiling too.”
The “squeeze” artists press the shells together with a wrenching motion in order to bulge the holding muscle as they slide the knife along it. They generally press against some hard object, but sometimes do it with tough hands alone. Hands are all-important in this business, which is no game for the clumsy. Sometimes a knife slips or a shell breaks into a ragged tearing edge.
“Hit and stab” oyster technicians also use a hard object against which they can bang the oyster to break the slight overhang at the shell tip.
Oyster men are frequently “rasp” users, too, and most prefer gloves. The rasp is a large, heavy-toothed file. The oyster is rubbed its full length before the knife is inserted. That also breaks the shell overlap and eases the entrance of the knife, usually a single piece of shaped metal. It has a square handle which fades off into a thin metal blade. Rufus Richards, one of the oyster contestants, used a knife and a hammer in the same hand. He’d hit the oyster and insert the knife almost in one motion, with a lulling monotony that rocked him along at a great clip.
There is serious doubt whether any of the tournament judges know that the scientific name for the round clam which comes in all sizes, called quahog in New England and subdivided into size distinctions like “bullnose,” “cherrystone,” and “little neck” farther south, is Venus mercenaria. They care little that the soft clam should be properly addressed as Mya arenaria. But they know how a clam or an oyster should look to a gourmet. It should be opened without breaking shell into the meat, and the contents should be attractive to the eye, not cut up. While speed is important, meat content and weight and bulk enter into a strict judgment of opening skill.
Contest rules for 1945 were listed plain one, two, three and four. There weren’t any more. They said simply that all contestants must report at a certain time; that any contestant could be disqualified for misconduct or untidiness; that all clams or oysters must be opened clean, regardless of broken shells or any other mishap; and that all would be in perfect condition before the contest, so that any contestant cheating on the count or furtively throwing away oysters and clams would be disqualified. Each contestant is obliged to sign a waiver on alleged bodily harm before his entry blank is accepted.
There are often surprises in the entry blanks. One of them read: “Dear Sir: I am not a clam opener, but I hold the world’s record in dressing and killing snapping turtles. My record is two minutes complete. I would be glad to show my talent in this line as a special side attraction.”
Of the 1800 “cherrystones,” 700 “bullnoses,” and 2000 Maurice River oysters the city bought for the occasion, the crowd had the most fun from those which disappeared into the maws of would-be Weintraubs in the specified twenty minutes. Apparently there is a technique to this competition that involves distinctions unknown to most diners. A jitney-driver baker of Weintraub who was offering even money (with no takers) confided, “A chewer don’t have much chance in this thing. The gulpers have all the best of it.”
Contest officials provide the condiments so beloved of bivalve eaters. On each table set about the arena enclosure were catsup, chili sauce, horse-radish, and salt and pepper. Lemons were conspicuously absent.
“We come to eat clams, not fruit,” remarked young Raymond Patrick Callahan, who stirred the throng with his gustatory enthusiasm until he reached the count of seventy-eight and then decided he could no longer look a bivalve in the eye.
Several tables also bore oyster crackers. Mrs. Madeline Grist placed them delicately into her mill, and Mrs. Helen Bell also used them. These women wound up in a tie for feminine honors with thirty-nine clams apiece.
At day’s end there was enough sea-food aroma hovering over the stadium to cause the gulls to change their minds about leaving. The sun, denied the spectacle by the lingering storm, broke through to light two new champions and two repeaters. They were Weintraub, Ingley, who held his title in the “cherrystone” clam division, E. L. Henry, who won in the “bullnose” class, and Theodore Mell, who shucked his way to top honors in the oyster division.
Judges and city officials were happy about the whole thing. “This National Clam and Oyster Openers’ Tournament is a coming event,” they chorused. “Not quite as big as a World’s Fair, not quite as glamorous as the Beauty Pageant, not so much action as the Rose Bowl game—maybe. But did you ever see anything like it?”
Few people have.
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