By Carolyn Ossorio
“Follow the gulls! They know where the good stuff is!” I shouted, sounding more like a conch-wielding character from Lord of the Flies than a six-months-pregnant mother of four (soon to be five) kids.
Pacific Northwest beaches at low tide — salty air, driftwood, bulbous seaweed whips — never fail to transport me back to childhood.
And, after a 75-minute drive from Seattle, over the Narrows Bridge near the town of Allyn at North Bay, we were too excited to wait for Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager and our beach guide for the day with the know-how to teach us how to forage for clams “hunter-gatherer, clean-and-cook-your-catch-beachside” style.
Our minivan doors slid open spilling out the rowdy contents within: my kids (Sophie, 12; Amelia, 9; Patrick, 5 and Ty, 3), and Grandma, the ultimate cat herder. I was popping one-sided wheelies over the rocky shore with a cooler filled with goodies: bunches of fresh herbs, fennel, diced onions and garlic cloves, tomato sauce, Italian sausage, baguette and lemon.
I mad-dashed to catch up with the ecstatic “oohing” and “ahhing” over all the squirting, squishy things.
On the beach, haunches down, pointer finger out, I love this version of myself: both mother and the curious child I once was, rolling over seaweed slick rocks crusted in spiny barnacles searching for wonder in the seas simple treasures: camou’d Hermit crabs that skitter away sideways, sand dollars, sea snail shells, mollusks and even a few starfish.
As a parent, these experiences in the wild with my children around the Pacific Northwest are what I crave — they are delicious bites of local adventures that inspire curiosity and wonder for both child and parent. These adventures are the premise of a new ParentMap web series I’m hosting called Forks in the Road.
I only wish I hadn’t gotten snared in the craziest muddy sand within the first ten minutes of arrival at the North Bay beach!
“I heard you got stuck in the sand,” said a voice said from up above. Langdon Cook had arrived, toting an armload of supplies: camp stove, table, Dutch oven.
I stopped my attempts at unsuccessfully shucking myself free from the muck with a plastic garden claw.
I recognized the figure walking toward me wearing faded denim tucked into wading boots from the back cover of his book.
Up close Langdon had the friendly, wind-sheared look of a man who has spent a fair amount of his life outside foraging. A few days’ stubble, pleasant little wrinkles crinkled about the corner of his eyes when he flashed a boyish smile.
“Nope, only too real,” I said placing a hand on my hip, desperate to appear casual mid-calf-deep into North Bay’s own version of the La Brea Tar Pits.
“Hold on to my shoulders,” he said, bending below my pregnant belly, and commenced digging me out with a shovel.
Not exactly the way I envisioned our day with Langdon to begin. Although I’ll admit that having a 21st century forager dig you out of a sand bog is a unique experience.
Holding on to his faded blue shirt just above the “been there, conquered that” rip on the elbow, I was impressed. He had a serious knack for digging. A patient and determined stride that left no doubt: if need be, Langdon would have dug all the way to China to set me free.
The down side of having a 21st century forager dig you out was that I couldn’t stop envisioning myself as the prey I’d been reading about in his foraging adventure book.
As I stood there, I didn’t see myself as the colorful and intelligent squid that Langdon “squid jiggles” off the Seattle Pier with a trout rod for his Risotto Nero Con Calamari recipe, or the quick-witted Ling fish caught off the Shilshoe Jetty with a pole spear for homemade fish and chips.
As I was being unearthed, I kept picturing a photo I’d seen of Langdon holding a three-foot geoduck and sporting a “proud as papa” grin. The geoduck had taken Langdon five hours to unearth. And, even as high tide threatened Langdon (or Lang as he preferred) refused to abandon his catch.
Fortunately, the soup du jour was clams, not Carolyn.
I hopped out of my newly purchased Big 5 wader boots in the muck, walked toward shore with socks that resembled sodden size 12 elf slippers.
Humbled, but free and ready for adventure, we spent the afternoon trailing Langdon with our neon-colored beach buckets, plastic garden claws and endless curiosity.
We dug up several different species of shellfish, primarily looking for the Manila clam show — a ¼-inch keyhole shape indicates the presence of the Manila clam or Littleneck buried about one to six inches under the sand. (Watch Forks in the Road: Clamming with Langdon Cook.)
We also learned about “Red Tide,” which refers to the toxin domoic acid found in shellfish, like clams, and can cause some nasty symptoms in humans like headache, dizziness, confusion, loss of short-term memory, motor weakness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, and coma.
Definitely, not what I wanted on the menu.
According to Langdon, state biologists regularly test shellfish samplings from up and down the coast for domoic acid before they can announce an opening on the Department of Fish and Wildlife website.
As for Langdon, he was a foraging machine — a clamming Ahab in search of his elusive “limit” of 40 clams for our lunch retreat.
Around the picnic blankets, everyone pitched in to help clean our limit for Langdon’s Steamed Shellfish with Wine, Tomato, Sausage & Herbs recipe.
And, if you’ve ever wondered if it’s safe for pregnant women and/or small children to eat foraged clams?
Yes. Just make sure they are fully cooked.
Which is convenient because when you catch a clam they are sealed up tight. It is only when they are fully cooked that they open up and reveal the tasty meat inside.
Sitting against a surprisingly comfortable beach boulder, the children bounced about sucking on clams and dunking hunks of French bread into bowls filled with steaming clams, Italian sausage, fennel and a savory tomato base that knocked my socks off. I was reminded of my favorite quote from Fat of the Land:
“Catching my own food in the wild, if only occasionally, feels like a reasonable response to the mind-numbing chore of pushing a shopping cart down the fluorescent-lit runways of a supermarket.”
Forks in the Road was inspired by a similar desire — to source fresh, local Pacific Northwest experiences for families off the well-trod circuit of museums, play lands and manicured parks — a little bit of wild.
Carolyn Ossorio writes about life in the city with her four children in her column for the Renton Reporter as well as regularly blogs for the Huffington Post about her love of cookin’ and trippin’ around the Pacific Northwest with her family. Forks in the Road is her family’s latest adventure — part cooking show, part field trip and 100% inspiring and relatable. Find Carolyn at pippimamma.com or on Facebook.