Friday, July 11, 2014

A Mess of Piddocks, or, Rock Oysters on Parade

“No banquet is considered complete without oysters in our modern life, and here is a delicacy that surpasses the oyster, but that cannot be shipped.”
Postcard view, Nye Beach, Newport, Yaquina Head in background
An exemplary bibliographer and city planner of my acquaintance, Nicholas Starin, recently asked me an unexpected question. Namely, “What do you know about the culinary use of piddock clams in the PNW?

Piddocks, rough piddocks, rock oysters, Zirfaea pilsbryi or a variant thereof, boring clams: they are clever creatures that can bore into mud, or clay, or sandstone, or soft rock. They are eminently edible, and varieties are found all along the North Pacific coast. But it appears that the soft rocky reefs near Yaquina Bay were popular places to gather and eat ‘em in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because after they are removed from their rocky burrows, they die, they are the kind of thing you eat right away: they don’t travel. They’ve never appeared on restaurant menus.

Looking north toward Nye Beach and Yaquina Head
I've been poking into the history of their consumption in Oregon off and on for a long time, without much to show for it. My mother grew up in Toledo in the 1920s and early 1930s, and she talked of occasionally finding some around Agate Beach and Newport, but she said they had pretty much disappeared. I remember finding a few as a kid (which occasioned my mother’s remarks), but we didn't dig them out and I've never eaten one. Nor have I seen a recipe that specifically calls for them, but then "clams" encompasses a lot. 

In the booklet Edible? Incredible! (by Marjorie Furlong and Virginia Pill; published 1973 in Tacoma), the authors say of the piddock, "It bores into shale and clay; therefore in order to extract these clams, much beach rock must be destroyed by digging a large hole. Since the piddock is no more flavorful than any other clam, avoid taking these species when it is possible to gather other kinds." Of course, if no others are around, hack away.

And people did. According to an article in the Oregonian on November 7, 1920, “it is necessary to have special equipment. Many of the devotees... carry sledges and regular rock drills with them on their vacation trips... .” Needless to say, the rock oysters “are getting scarcer every year.”

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