When Idaho chef, outdoorsman and BW writer Randy King asked if I wanted to tag along on a river-bound food adventure that included clams, crawdads, carp and cattails, I couldn't wait. As the citizen of a state bereft of sea breezes and surf, I wasn't about to pass on a chance to feed my occasional pangs of coastal envy with a high desert clambake--no matter how odd that sounded when I said it out loud.
I remember seeing bits of broken clamshell scattered through the sagebrush and lava rock of my childhood past, even a few tightly-closed, if tiny mollusks in the sands of mountain streams, but I also seemed to have inherited a mental blind spot when it came to registering those freshwater clams and mussels as food. Growing up, I never heard of a single soul who actually ate one.
King had. He assured me, as he and his dad, Larry, slid a boat into the Snake River at Swan Falls on a Sunday morning, that they tasted great, if less salty than coastal clams.
"We found some clams a couple of weeks back," King said as he pushed off the dock and began motoring upstream. "And we're going to try to find them again."
It turns out that there are nearly 300 species of freshwater clams and mussels living in the inland waterways of North America and native tribes had no trouble seeing those land-locked bivalves as food. They also used the spent shells as currency, fashion accessories and tools. Back then, the Swan Falls area was a mollusk harvesting Mecca. As Randy, Larry and I headed upstream, we likely passed several overgrown middens, or mounds of ancient tribal refuse, littered with clam and mussel shells.
"See that tiny little beach right there?" King asked as we neared a spit of wet, dark gray sand. "I'm going to go ahead and beach there, and we're going to find some clams." Once out of the boat, King grabbed a large, fine-meshed silver sieve, waded into the water and began sifting sand as if panning for gold.
"This is about as local a food product as you can come up with," he said as he sluiced wet sand through the sieve. On cue, a pea-sized mollusk emerged.
Unlike many later-day locavores, King isn't new to the notion of local food. He grew up in a hunting and fishing family. When, for instance, we passed a thicket of ripe currants, father Larry mentioned picking buckets of the orange berries as a kid but not as a casual outdoor diversion: He did it to help stock the family shelves with the jam they couldn't afford to buy at the store.
My dad passed on similar tales of a pragmatic brand of locavorism common decades before locavore was a word. Randy, however, had done a better job of inheriting his father's knack for subsistence food gathering. For me, panning for clams was a novelty; for Randy, it was one more thing we humans should know how to do.
Whatever our motivations, the three of us were apparently not the only Idahoans interested in local freshwater clams and mussels. Two days later, I met with David Parrish, fisheries coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He told me that several people had called him this season asking about the potential for harvesting Idaho mollusks.
"There isn't normally a lot of interest in harvesting mussels from the Snake River," Parrish said. "But just recently--and I think it's because the high water has kind of moved some of the mussels around and exposed them to where people can see actually how large they are--we're getting some interest from folks in harvesting them and actually eating them."
Parrish said there are no regulations in Idaho prohibiting the harvesting of mussels, and he himself had found freshwater mollusks 8 to 10 inches long. But when I asked if he'd tried eating them, he grimaced.
"I have not," he said. "I'm a little concerned about what they have filtered and what they may pass on."
As filter feeders, Parrish explained that clams and mussels are far more adept than fish or crawdads at collecting and storing whatever pollutants may lurk in the waters of rivers like the Snake. And since some can live as long as a century, bivalves have decades to leisurely collect, or bioaccumulate, nasty stuff. For that reason alone, Parrish strongly discouraged callers from following through on their dreams of an Idaho clambake.
Steve Lysne, a College of Western Idaho professor, biologist and the curator of mollusks at the Smith Museum of Natural History in Caldwell, agreed with Parrish.
"The problem with harvesting our freshwater mussels today," he said, "is it's very possible that there are levels of certain pollutants in their tissues that we would not want to consume. Things like heavy metals, mercury and cadmium. Things like organochlorines and PCBs. That's one reason why we should avoid eating freshwater mussels, particularly in large working rivers like the Snake River. The other reason is that we're concerned about their conservation status."
According to Lysne, one of the native Idaho mollusk species that grows large enough to eat is declining in numbers. The Western pearlshell, or Margaritifera falcata, was once considered the most common mussel in the Pacific Northwest, but now it's rare. Lysne said those animals don't need new predators in the form of locavores who suddenly see them as tasty additions to pasta sauce.
However, he added somewhat reluctantly, there is a large species of freshwater mussel called the Western ridged mussel, Gonidea angulata, that is not in decline. Foragers willing to do a little homework and harvest responsibly could, in theory, indulge their impulse for Idaho seafood.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service just recently put out a field guide to the freshwater mollusks of Southern Idaho," Lysne said. "It's got great pictures and descriptions and folks could pretty easily tell [species] apart."
Unlike the declining Western pearlshell, the more abundant Western ridge mussel is somewhat triangular in shape and has a distinctive ridge along its shell. Having never dipped one in drawn butter, Lysne couldn't guarantee their gastronomic credentials.
Back on the Snake River, King, his father and I got totally skunked. No clams, no crawdads, no carp. I blamed it on the Army Corps of Engineers for having raised the river level. But in retrospect, I'm grateful. Although the impulse to harvest food close to home is a healthy one, next time, I'll do a little more research and have a field guide on hand before I climb in the boat.