A 90 Year Old Tragedy

Food can be one of life’s great joys. Growing it, cooking it, sharing it, and eating it are necessities steeped in so much tradition and pleasure that we can easily forget they are necessities at all. Unfortunately, food doesn’t always bring joy, sometimes it can bring tragedy, as it did 90 years ago this week on April 27th 1925.

Clamming was a great Santa Cruz pastime of the early 20th Century. During the right tides at the right time of year, the newspapers would announce the best locations for clamming parties. Scores of people would hit the beaches at low tide using rakes and forks to collect bags of Pismo Clams. The young folks would have large clam bakes on the beach to celebrate. Clam chowder was a hugely popular dish at events, showing up in family recipes and on the menus of large galas. There was some worry in the Santa Cruz Evening News that prohibition would put a damper on the excitement (“did you ever hear of a beerless clambake?”), but the tradition continued.

newspaper headline

As a person was clamming, they would put the clams they collected in a sack that was usually strapped to their waste so both hands would be free to do the collecting. With the large pismo clams weighing a couple of pounds each, the sacks could get quite heavy. And that’s how it was for Jesse Spry, who was clamming in Watsonville with his son Donald and some friends in April 1925. Donald was swept into the ocean and was unable to get out due to the strong current. Jesse went in to save him, but had not removed the sack of clams he had collected, and was not able to help his son. Another person who was with them saw what was happening and was able to jump in and help get Donald to shore. Jesse drowned, weighed down by the clams.  He was 34 years old and left behind a wife and daughter as well as his son.

Stories like this one have been long forgotten, as have the glory days of clamming. The pastime died out as the clam numbers dwindled. Arrests were made regularly of clammers taking too many clams, or those that were too small, and could result in fines and even jail time. Now hearing of someone going clamming is a rarity, and strict regulations are in place to prevent the over consumption of the clams population still found here. The recipes, however, remain, and it is possible through them (though likely with a different species of clam or individuals collected elsewhere) to understand why so many people would put their lives in jeopardy for the joy of food.

—Sierra Perry-Ryan

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