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Aug 12, 2019 8:43 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Springs Fisherman's Fair Introduces Its First Clam-Shucking Contest

Meredith O’Leary and Jack Dougherty went tooth and nail in the Clam-shucking contest. KYRIL BROMLEY
Aug 13, 2019 3:41 PM

“Do I get to eat ’em?” Meredith O’Leary called out after being announced the winner of the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance first-ever clam shucking contest, which took place on Saturday during the 87th annual Fisherman’s Fair to benefit the Springs Improvement Society.

Clamming is a “Bonac” tradition, and the mollusks can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, baked or fried. Whatever way people choose to eat clams, shucking — opening the clam — is in many cases the first step, and speed and skill are valuable.

The Springs Improvement Society’s fair took place on the grounds of Ashawagh Hall. Children’s games and crafts were set up near the Parsons Blacksmith Shop, while food and craft vendors were scattered on the lawn and near the Springs Library.

Dozens of clams were sitting in ice-cold buckets of water on a white table outside Ashawagh Hall at noon, waiting to be shucked.

Only three eager shuckers signed up for the inaugural contest: Meredith O’Leary, Jack Dougherty and Chris Scola. But they had enough enthusiasm to get the crowd amped up for some good old-fashioned Bonac fun.

The three participants lined up with gloves on, knives in hand, aprons tied, and a bucket of clams in front of each.

With one minute on the clock, the one with the most successfully opened and intact clams would win.

People crowded around the tent and cheered the contestants on. Ms. O’Leary and Mr. Dougherty went tooth and nail in the contest, quickly unhinging the clams open, removing the top shell, and placing the meaty bottom shell on a tray for the judges to check out.

Mr. Scola, of Montauk Scallop Company, typically shucks hundreds and hundreds of scallops a day. Even so, he was having trouble prying open his clams.

As the timer ran, Ms. O’Leary and Mr. Doughtery choked closely on their knives with one hand and grasped the clams in the other.

The two participants were in sync, inserting the tip of the blade between the two clamshells and popping the clams open.

As the judges counted down from 10 and time ran out, Ms. O’Leary and Mr. Dougherty each opened five clams. Mr. Scola had only one.

The judges looked over the clams to make sure they were properly opened, and made the decision that Ms. O’Leary would be the winner.

Ms. O’Leary picked a clam up and sucked the meat out before walking toward Ashawagh Hall to collect her prizes: a Springs Improvement Society membership, a custom T-shirt — and, of course, bragging rights.

Ms. O’Leary, a Noyac resident, said she has been shucking clams her entire life. Tip No. 1 to be a champion shucker: Get a proper shucking knife. Shucking knives are thin and sharp, she explained, while showing off her small, 3-inch knife with a rounded tip.

Before shucking, she said, having the clams iced down and cold is very important. When they’re cold, the knife is able to slide in without the clam clamping down.

“Once they close, you can’t get in,” she said. “They’re stronger when they’re warmer.”

If a clam feels vibrations, from loud noises or footsteps, it will close even tighter, she added.

Once the clams have been cooled down, Ms. O’Leary grasps one clam, using a towel or gloves to protect her hands while prying the shell open with a knife, as the hinge of the clamshell is nestled near the palm.

Then, the knife is pried between the two clamshells, twisting them apart, while she continues to twist the knife until the seal is broken and the knife can get inside the clam, to the meat.

“I’ve been shucking clams my whole life, probably since I was 5 years old,” she said, adding that Saturday’s clams were “delicious.”

Mr. Doughtery, who is a close friend of Ms. O’Leary, took the defeat in stride. “I’m going to practice. Next year, Meredith is going down,” he joked. Mr. Doughtery has been shucking clams for 20 years, since moving to Springs from Rockland County.

“I was on clam No. 6. That would’ve won it,” he said with excitement. “But I couldn’t get the hinge off. Mine were a little sloppy.”

He agreed that the secret to calm shucking is cold clams and a thin blade. “Ice the clams down and they open up a little bit,” he explained. “And put the knife right between the lips.”

Mr. Scola retreated to his Montauk Scallop Company tent after the contest, noting that he is a scallop shucker, not a clam shucker.

“It’s totally different. I shuck on average 5,000 sea scallops a day with my hands,” he said. “I figured I’d at least be able to compete.” Laughing, he explained that scallops have a gap on the side where a sharp knife can easily slide in.

“You want the next scallop in your hand before the last shell hit the water. That’s how fast you have to go,” he said.

Mr. Scota admitted that Ms. O’Leary is a great shucker. Next year, he said, he’s going to practice with a bushel of clams before the contest.

The Fisherman’s Fair began as a community exchange for the local fishermen of Springs. They sold their fish, clams, oysters and scallops while local women came with handmade clothing and homemade baked foods.

Now, the Fisherman’s Fair is an annual event which is the year’s biggest fundraising event for Ashawagh Hall, funding maintenance of the hall and the Springs Improvement Society’s scholarship program.

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Congratulations Meredith!!!
By toes in the water (879), southampton on Aug 14, 19 6:25 AM
any pics of the FAIR???
By knitter (1803), Southampton on Aug 15, 19 10:09 AM
The Hampton Classic, Horse Show, Bridgehampton