A Story Of Love, Romance And . . . Clams

Just in time for Valentine's Day, writer Jen Doll shares a story of dating, romance and clams

We met in a bar on Cape Cod, one of those woody, rustic old joints that look like they might burst into flames with the strike of a match, where locals call each other by name and brush up against tourists there for only the summer. He was one, and I was the other, in town from New York City one sweltering August weekend with a group of friends. Also, he was a clammer.

I can't remember how this information first emerged, but I do know that it clung to my brain like a bivalve to a shell. It required further questioning. For instance: What, exactly, does a clammer do? What are the hours? What is the pay? Does one need tools? This was the early 2000s, the perfect storm of the fishing movie The Perfect Storm. Was clamming similarly dangerous? Like, sexy dangerous?

More importantly, did he love clams? I imagined having infinite access to the food—a cousin to the upscale oyster I still couldn't really afford; a niece of the mussels I devoured in cheap French restaurants in the East Village. Perhaps he even ate them like potato chips from a bowl?

My clammer, a wiry man with a slightly crooked nose and taut shoulders, who did, when I squinted, give off a vibe of sexy dangerous, was not a person prone to verbose exchanges. "Eh, clams," he might have said. "Not really a fan." On the night we met, we didn't talk much about clamming at all. Instead, we drank beer and flirted, and when the bar closed, we kissed. I gave him my number, and to my surprise, he called. So began my eight-month long-distance relationship with a man who lived on Cape Cod. But not just a man. A clammer.

Dating someone, no matter what he does for a living and whether it involves mollusks, involves a steady process of taking in information about his habits, their likes and dislikes, his various moods and opinions. Of course, this includes food, especially as much dating involves sharing a meal. In the beginning, we tend to postpone designating this new information as positive or negative. It's simply interesting, at least, until we know more. (So he hates peppers? Huh. He takes his coffee with two Sweet'N Lows and a dribble of half-and-half? Got it. The man subsists on white foods alone, like an overgrown toddler or person who has just gotten their teeth whitened? Well, that's just unacceptable.)

With the clammer, everything was interesting, from his recent DUI to the fact that he still lived at home to his occupation. He wasn't an investment banker or a upwardly mobile media professional (thank goodness), and he didn't care for scallops or lobster or even crab dip, foods popular in his seaside town. There was something deliciously renegade about him, and it seemed thematically appropriate that he kept far from the ocean in his diet. "He's a clammer who hates clams!" I announced to a friend, thinking it a great and ironic finding. A man with these sorts of internal contradictions was someone I might be able to love.

The long distance helped, of course. When you're frequently apart, you can fill in the blanks with your own imagination, and shoring up our fraught love was my own mind, itself buoyed by the John Hughes movies of my youth. The dichotomy between my New York City life, cerebral and aspiring, and his more corporeal one, limited by the confines of the small town he grew up in, seemed less a matter of concern than just totally swoony. I could help him! He could help me! And what we ate didn't really matter anyway; did anyone give a shit what Romeo and Juliet had for lunch?

I have to be honest: Before I met the clammer, I had never devoted much time or energy to thoughts of clams. (My mom frequently made spaghetti alle vongole, but I preferred a marinara sauce and had no need for those chewy little brown pieces of clam to dot my pasta.) But while he and I were together, I found myself thinking about them constantly, not merely as a food but as a component of my boyfriend's life, inextricably tied to the money he had, how he felt about his day, whether he'd be able to visit me soon. While at first I'd been surprised by his passionate distaste for mollusks—I once watched him melt down over Clamato in his Bloody Mary—soon enough, I felt it, too. After all, food is not just about flavor and mouthfeel and tradition; food contains an entire story of what's happened before it's landed on the plate in front of you, and it is all this that sustains, or sometimes revolts, you in food. That includes the people who've interacted with it, and, make no mistake, the way your grandmother blows delicately on her homemade cookies to cool them is one thing; the way your boyfriend sweats over a shell of protein deep in the sand is another.

Dressed in waders and gloves, a clam rake in hand, he'd head out at the crack of dawn to dig in shallow waters for clams. The hours were as long as he could stand it. The pay depended on how many clams he got, who was buying, how many competitors were digging. The work entailed a lot of bending over, his back to the sun, arms extended, trying to find more clams. He worked when the weather was decent, when there were clams to be found, when the money was good, when he felt like it and when he had to. It wasn't particularly sexy or dangerous. It was a job.

Oysters have a reputation for romance, but I found clams to be far the opposite, more like the permit you needed to dig them. And as things broke down in my relationship with the clammer, they became something more: hard-shelled backbreakers intent on punishing before providing the scanty sustenance they had to give, and soon from that, a metaphor for the end. We were no longer willing and open and pliable but intractable and finally just done. We'd clammed up. Or maybe, there was simply nothing left to clam. One thing was sure: We'd lost our appetites.

Yet, some flavors take a long time to fade. Even though we ended things more than a decade ago, the clammer used to call me every now and again, just to check in. The last time we talked, he was working on a boat in Georgia. "Still clamming?" I asked. "Nah," he said, and maybe I imagined it, but I felt that same old hint of disgust in his tone over the subject of his least-favorite food. Then he brightened. "Fishing now." I haven't eaten a clam in years, but like him, I've moved on, too.