"I simply cannot imagine why anyone would eat something slimy served in an ashtray"
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Clams are bivalve mollusks with one foot to get in the door; muscles to keep their mouths shut; and tender bodies to die for. In fact, Shinto wedding feasts in Japan traditionally feature clam soup, the paired valves of the mollusk's shell symbolizing the couple's union (contributed by Vicki McClure Davidson of Scottsdale, Arizona, from Jay Jacob's The Eaten Word).
Although they have been eaten worldwide for centuries (except by Hebrews), today they are perhaps most cherished by Americans--and we've got an abundance of them.
On the east coast, we've got hardshell (Venus mercenaria) and softshell (Mya arenaria) varieties. Soft shells occur off Massachusetts and northward: they live in tidal flats and have to be dug out. They look disgusting and can be quite a mouthful, but there's nothing in the world like the tenderness of that golden ball of meat contrasted with its chewy bands.
Hardshells occur up and down the coast, and they are consequently known by many names. New Englanders use the Native American term quahog. Mid Atlantics say "little neck," or "round clam," or "cherrystone," depending on size. It is these hardshells that put New England and Manhattan chowders on the map. And it's the blue of the inside shell that Native Americans used for wampum.
The west coast boasts some 500 varieties, though only some 30 are well known--ranging from the pismo to the gigantic gweduc. Of these, razor clams are far and away the most popularly harvested. They're chopped and minced and sold in small flat cans--making wonderful soups of every variety.
How small and big can they get? In Japan, clams are harvested that are so tiny they have no discernible taste. A little bigger and fabulously tasty are the little coquilles my kids used to pick up on the Atlantic beaches of Morocco, pop them open, and lick out the little bodies with orange feet. As for big, the truly "giant" clam in the tropical parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans can weigh up to 500 pounds!