King of Clams

Sampling the odd yet rewarding geoduck

I'd seen pictures of geoduck, the world's largest and strangest species of burrowing clam, but until I moved to Seattle last year and found it on my plate at a restaurant called Spring Hill, I had never tasted the lurid-looking bivalve. It was hard to believe that this elegant food, with its briny flavor and subtle crunch, served raw and thinly sliced with a lemon-peel relish, came from the same primordial creature.

Frankly, the sight of whole geoduck (pronounced "gooey-duck," from the local American Indian term for "dig deep") can be off-putting. At its most extreme, the mollusk can weigh more than 15 pounds, its wrinkled gray siphon protruding as much as six feet from its oblong shell. Specimens are strikingly phallic, which may explain why geoduck is considered an aphrodisiac in many Asian cultures. Though on the other side of the Pacific it has long been revered as a delicacy, in the American Northwest, where the bivalve is native, geoduck has only recently started showing up on menus, primarily at locavore restaurants. I ate the tender, edible siphon in a ceviche with serrano chiles and green mango at Xinh's Clam and Oyster House in Shelton, Washington, and flash-sauteed with ginger, citrus, and fermented black beans at Matt's in the Pike Place Market. Matt's chef, Chester Gerl, even told me he'd wooed his wife with a plate of smoked geoduck. If this giant clam can lead to love, I thought, I'd better learn how to cook it too.

I figured it made sense to begin at the source, so I turned to Langdon Cook, a Seattle forager who's been digging for clams for 20 years. I could buy live geoducks, Cook said, but the best way for me to become familiar with the mollusk would be to harvest one myself. A few days later I was dressed in neoprene hip waders, sloshing through the ankle-deep tidal water at Hood Canal in Puget Sound, two and a half hours west of Seattle. Cook had told me to look for two-inch oval holes in the muck, and when I finally found one with the tip of a clam's siphon poking out, I dug a pit, plunged my arm into the soupy substrate, pulled the clam out, and held it up in the air, Rocky style. My prize was the size of a football with a foot-long siphon, which I turned into gingery sashimi that very night.