I talk a decent amount of shit. There's a fine line between healthy skepticism and straight up hating, and I frequently walk it. Some of my more recent posts have encouraged civil discourse and respectful discussions rather than passing judgment and these "I'm right - you're wrong" proclamations. I do believe and stand by that. We'd all be better off with candid yet considerate conversation. But still, I talk shit, throw shade, sip water (any Beanie Sigel fans?). My friend even recently told me I "bleed cynicism." We're all hypocrites from time to time, or at least I certainly am.
It is pretty easy to sit back and be a critic. There are a number of sayings out there in one form or another. "Any fool can criticize, and most fools do" or "be a creator, not critic." And "Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize....or teach gym." Something like that. Sorry, Mrs. Horsey. High school gym class was the absolute best. Just jokes. But it's good to always be aware of this. I too often find myself critiquing meals, movies, football matches, and so on. And nobody wants to be that guy, right? The Skip Baylesses and Colin Cowherds of the world are about as helpful as social distancing in a submarine. I try to counterbalance my petty caviling by getting out of my comfort zone and doing things that are new, unfamiliar, or even that I'm genuinely bad at. A nice hearty dose of humility does everyone some good.
So, back in the fall of 2019, pre-apocalypse 2020, some friends and I decided we'd try "sea foraging," something none of us were particularly familiar or comfortable with. There were decades of culinary, restaurant, and even fishing experience between us, but nobody could poke-pole for a sculpin or confidently pick out the edible seaweeds of the coastline. I'd always thought I had a decent grasp on many things seafood. I've shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, butchered more varieties of fish than I can remember, and even regularly messed around with exotics like percebes or making my own bottarga. But ask me to go and pull a razor clam from the sand a short 25 minute drive from my house, I'd embarrassingly have little to no success.
|Half Moon Bay at low tide |
While we were definitely out of our comfort zone in attempting this, we weren't stupid enough (at least anymore) to dive into it blindly. Picking up stuff off the beach and eating it, after all, isn't like casually trying your hand at water colors or giving tennis a go. Wrong kelp, wrong time, wrong clam, wrong tide - any one can quickly equal a trip to right the emergency room. We were fortunate enough to enlist a pro's help.
Enter Kirk Lombard, a.k.a. the Sea Forager. He's a Bay Area icon who I've been following for a bit now. His biography on the website summarizes it better than I can, but he's basically all things NorCal fisheries. Education, sustainability, research, commerce, preservation, recreation, and more. If it's akin to the ocean, it's akin to Kirk. He's got an informative and wit-filled book, provides guided classes, and even offers a weekly sea-to-table delivery service for at home cooks. So, on a brisk but sunny day in November, we all met up in Half Moon Bay during a mega low tide in search of all the forageable, scrumptious sea creatures it had to offer.
|Fried whole smelt, or "fries with eyes," at |
Hog Island in San Francisco's Ferry Building
As herring season was near, we started off with a tutorial in cast netting. Not that herring were in Half Moon Bay, but the goal was to teach us as many sea foraging techniques as we could cram into one day. Pretty straight forward in theory, but rather difficult to execute. It's simply a circular net with weights on the edge that's attached to a handline. You throw it out into the water, the weights drop, and with a quick pull of the line, anything beneath the net is caught. The hard part is actually getting the net to spread out on the throw. Takes a lot of practice, but it's great for catching large hauls (I've been told) of surf smelt. It's also impressive as a fishing method that dates back millennia and is still employed daily from San Francisco to Shanghai and everywhere in between. Careful, though, as regulations vary by area and season. Cast netting is something I'm nowhere even close to proficient at, but I'm keen to be as freshly caught fries with eyes are damn delicious.
After about twenty minutes of what can be best described as cast net fails by all of us, save Kirk, we were on to the main task at hand: clammin' - horseneck clammin' specifically. I wasn't very familiar with horseneck clams until I heard we'd be targeting them. They're a gaper clam and basically like a mini geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). If you've had mirugai sushi, that's geoduck. It's also the comedically massive and phallic clam that's always elicited wry smiles and audible chuckles at every restaurant I've ever worked. Yes, people do call it the penis clam and every other clever variation you can think of. Clamming in general is just too easy for sexual innuendo and double entendre. I'll do my best to refrain.
Horseneck clam harvesting on the Pacific coast goes back centuries with archaeological excavations unearthing shells at several coastal sites. Native Americans would use both the meat as food and the shells for tools or jewelry. How they did this without modern day means is beyond me as digging for these clams is a fairly tall order. It starts pretty leisurely with a simple stroll down the beach at low tide. You're looking for small, but not too small (quarter-sized or so) holes in the sand. After spotting one, stomp a few times in close proximity. If a spout of water squirts out, it just may be a clam. This spout is from the clam being startled, sharply retracting it's siphon, and expelling the water it held. It can be tricky as many of the holes are misleading and often just ghost shrimp, crabs, or other aquatic critters. You want to be as close to positive as possible it's a clam, too, cause the tall order I mentioned starts here.
|Digging up our first clam|
Unlike the casual clamming of the East coast I was familiar with, digging for horseneck clams is an arduous endeavor as they can be buried deep, up to three or four feet sometimes. Just to procure a single clam requires jamming a 3' x 18" PVC tube several feet into the ground, shoveling out heaps of wet, heavy sand, and siphoning out seawater that's constantly rushing in to fill the hole. Then, you've got to get face down in the muck, probing around with a small trowel to locate the clam. And once you've found it, you have to gingerly extract it with a gentle touch as to not crush the shell or tear the siphon. As I said, a tall order. Oh, and I forgot to mention, on that leisurely stroll down the beach, you're lugging around all this equipment the whole time.
However, I must admit the labor is worth it. Surfacing with that first gaper clam after a thirty minute physically draining battle was quite the reward. "No pain, no gain." Well, Kirk's pain and our gain. I won't lie. He did most of the work while the rest of us, let's say, supervised. We ended up with two medium sized clams and discovered all sorts of interesting sea life along the way, ranging from adorable to appalling. Innkeeper worms, sea lettuce, purple urchin, Turkish washcloth. The most thrilling and incredibly rare find, though, was the Lewis's moon snail.
|Half Moon Bay Moon Snail |
For the last leg of our tour, we headed outside the Half Moon Bay jetty onto the rocks of Maverick's Beach. With the mega low tide, there were scores of people scooping up bag limits (and probably beyond) of whatever they could find, mainly mussels. Kirk had a few choice words on preservation, sustainability, and responsible harvests, given what we were witnessing. It's certainly an important topic and warrants further discussion, but that's a whole separate post. The main point: please forage responsibly, keeping in mind we want these valuable sea resources to stay around for generations to come. That being said, grab all the purple sea urchin you can. Climate change, warmer waters, disappearing predators and other factors have created a breeding boom for these urchin and they're laying waste to many California coastal ecosystems. Perhaps a marketing catchphrase for purple sea urchin hunting is needed, like "stay calm and eat uni" or "munch an urchin just for the halibut."
Anyway, we were there to focus on a method and a fish: poke-poling and monkeyface eel. Poke-poling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Just like cast netting is casting a net, poke-poling is poking a pole, more specifically into tidal pools. It consists of a long rod (sturdy fishing rod, bamboo, or even a broomstick would do), a flexible but strong wire tied to it (coat hanger seems to be standard), and a few inches of fishing line with a hook at the end. Squid, surf clam, mussels, or any other manner of bait is placed on the hook and poked around into the holes and crevices in the rocks, basically anywhere that looks like an eel would comfortably call home. The fish bites, the hook is set, and out comes the catch. It's a great way to nab monkeyface eels and even a clunker cabezon occasionally.
The monkeyface eel, or monkeyface prickleback, can be found all over coastal California and Oregon in abundance. There's no size limit on a keeper, and they have same bag limit as rockfish at ten a day. That's a lot of monkeyface meat in twenty four hours. But as they're not exactly blessed with the best looks or reputation, they haven't been the focus of many commercial fisheries and are sparsely prized by local anglers. As of late, however, more and more restaurants in the Bay Area have begun to recognize their value as a sustainable seafood. The most curious thing is that monkeyface eels are omnivorous, eating mostly crustaceans and plankton while young and switching to primarily seaweeds and algae as adults, as if to grow some sort of ethical culinary conscience. Lucky for us, though, the adults still can't resist a bit of squid being dangled right in front of them.
We each tried, but Kirk did most of the poke-poling and ended up bagging two respectably sized eels while losing a few and releasing some of the smaller ones. They're slippery little buggers, don't always take the full bait, and can seemingly loose the hook with ease. You basically have to pop them out of their holes and grab them by hand before they flop back into the water. Or, if you're wise, just have a small mesh landing net on hand. The amazement of onlooking mussel harvesters was probably the funniest bit of the whole poke-poling tutorial. That, or getting to say "poke-poling" over and over again. Seeing Kirk pull out eel after eel like reverse whack-a-mole drew quite the crowd. The crowd's amazement then soon shifted to mild alarm as they realized such gnarly creatures had been lurking mere inches from their bare toes as they navigated the tide pools. Some in the crowd even recognized Kirk, as we overheard "dude, that's the Sea Forager" a few times. Must be cool to be a poke-poling celebrity.
With a day's worth of invaluable mudflat lessons done and a modest but healthy haul of pricklebacks and clams in hand, we said our thanks to Kirk for the great experience and headed back to my buddy's house to cook our spoils. But how was the big question.
Preparing a horseneck clam isn't like your standard littleneck or manila. You can't just drop them in a pot and cook (that would be one awfully big steamer). They require some butchering and cleaning. This video by another Bay Area foraging legend, Hank Shaw, is one of the best instructional demonstrations I've seen. First, just like oyster liquor, all that valuable juice that pours out of the clam while shucking is cooking liquid gold. Be sure to save as much as you can. Next, in breaking down the clam, most of the meat is in the siphon, which needs to be blanched, skinned, split, and rinsed of sand and particulate. It can either be tenderized and used in chowders, stews, sauces, etc. or thinly sliced and eaten raw. The body of the clam has to be thoroughly cleaned of its guts, basically any of the goopy dark stuff. After this, you're left with a tasty foot, belly, and adductors. These parts can be chowdered, but are best prepared seasoned and fried. Also, aquacultured geoduck can fetch upwards of $30 dollars a pound commercially, often double or even triple that in parts of Asia. To me, these gaper clams were just smaller versions of geoduck, so keep that in mind while savoring every last bit.
|Half Moon Bay Sea Lettuce|
The monkeyface eel was just as, well, interesting. I'll try to phrase this as delicately as possible. After the eels had been dispatched, their resilient nervous systems pressed on. While rinsing them off in the sink to prep, one even to managed wriggle its way down into the sink's drain, requiring pliers to remove. No joke. Like I said, they're slippery little guys. And not to be crass, but all food comes from living things that shuffle their mortal coils to become nourishment for us. I don't want to delve into the whole sentience and physical pain debate of our dietary choices, but I do believe the closer we are to our food, in all aspects, the better. Distancing ourselves is what created the factory-farmed horrors of plastic-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ecosystem devastating salmon steaks. "Out of sight out of mind" shouldn't apply to our food. If you want to eat the sausage, you should be comfortable seeing how it's made. Humane is respecting all living things while understanding some must pass on for us to eat, from peas to pigs and everything in between.
Stepping off my soap box and getting back to the point, we now had four nice monkeyface eel loins and two cleaned and prepped horseneck clams. I'll be honest, having spent hours trudging around the beach, digging for clams, lugging equipment, and scaling tidal rocks, we were flat out exhausted. And hungry. Sea foraging works up an appetite. There was no way in hell we were expending more time and energy to make a hearty seafood stew or fancy sauces to go with pan roasted fish. We wanted instant gratification, so out came the deep fryer. The clam bellies and eel fillets were lightly seasoned and in they went. No pomp. No circumstance. No ceremony. Just salt, citrus, and hot oil. We breaded some too, just for contrast. Surprisingly, the naked fry versions won out. Either way, clam bellies are always delicious deep fried. The eel was also great and reminded me a lot of catfish, both in taste and texture. I've heard it criticized for being too muddy or astringent tasting. I found it rather pleasant and could see it cooked or prepared in any number of ways, just like any other firm, white fish. The skin crisped up nicely too when fried and would make some delectable chips. As for the clam siphon, sashimi style was definitely the way to go. Thinly sliced on the bias and dipped in a soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and jalapeno mixture made for quite the treat. It was very toothsome, but incredibly sweet, briny and almost nutty in flavor. Clamming and poke-poling might just become a regular hobby of mine as the bounty was so delightful.
Our entire sea foraging day was incredible. There were so many nuances and intricacies of the mudflats I'd never imagined, and still so much to learn. From cast net fails and poke-poling misses to the deep fried delicacies, it was truly a new and somewhat intimidating, but eye-opening and amazing experience. Hopefully you too, despite all the recent craziness, have the chance to try out something a bit different, new, or even scary. Or at least, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, you can sit down, be humble....and eat some monkeyface eel.
The SF Oyster Nerd