Digging for community in the Gulf
Vietnamese immigrants found food and freedom by the sea
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1990. A purple night in the Gulf of Mexico, with a freckling of stars mirrored on the surface of the water. On the local bridge near Tampa Bay, cars stream toward their destinations, toward seafood shacks playing Jimmy Buffet, or back home, where cold beers await. Beneath the bridge, near the banks where the churlish waves grind hundreds of varieties of shells into coarse gray dust, a dozen Vietnamese immigrants gather. Men and women wear Lee jeans, rolled up to mid-calf, and carry white buckets full of clams.
While moms and dads, aunts and uncles dig for more clams with rusted trowels, kids play tag by the parked cars’ headlights or nap in backseats, blankets pulled chin high. Grandmas stoop in the old-country way, knees pried open like compasses, scrubbing the clamshells, then dunking them in fresh water to rid them of grit. Afterward, an uncle will dump the clams on to narrow grates over the open fire.
In the heat, those clams open like tentative mouths. Someone will hand out beers. Someone else will unearth the Tupperware with the nước chấm dipping sauce, through which the adults drag the pearly knobs of fresh-grilled clam. There’s so much eating and drinking. The pile of discarded shells becomes a monument to the night, an echo of the old shell middens found 10,000 years ago in the Vietnamese province of Nghe An. Most of the kids refuse to eat the clams, reaching instead for Funyuns and Sunkist, but a bachelor uncle chases the children to the water’s edge, snapping the empty clamshells like maracas. He says, “This is gold from the sea!”
Low tide is when you want to dig for clams, but this group doesn't always catch the tide. The adults have jobs that start early. The kids have school, where they learn a language that isn’t the one their parents speak and eat out of thermoses packed with rice and pork floss.
But here, now, the night has been cracked apart for loud conversations, boldness, ballads on bootleg cassettes. There’s a snatch of the past in the salt-sprinkled wind coming off the sea. A glimpse of the traditions of “nhậu,” a word that means both “together” and “feasting with drink” in Vietnamese. The night lasts too long. It’s never long enough.
Florida is a clam-loving state. When my family moved there in the early 1990s from Vietnam, clams were plentiful in the Gulf. This was before Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the rampant overharvesting at the beginning of a new century that led to a statewide effort to deploy clams back into the Gulf: Aquaculturists hoped the shellfish would replenish the dying seagrasses and reverse the encroachment of algal blooms.
When we first arrived in America, there was a lot we didn’t recognize in the grocery stores: Perfect rounds of Oscar Mayer cold cuts, a zillion brands of salsa, potato flakes in a box. But we recognized the clams. To us, they were a bit of the familiar in a wildly unfamiliar place.
Years later, when we recount the stories of our clambakes to my American-born stepdad, an avid fisherman and rule follower, he tells us flatly, “You were there illegally.” He says that a recreational saltwater fishing license is required to harvest any shell with a living organism in Florida. And even then, clams must be at least one-inch wide across the hinge, a measurement I’m positive we didn’t take, as we were so used to baby clams in the beloved cơm hến dish we ate in Vietnam.
Additionally, one may not harvest from a half hour after official sunset until a half hour before official sunrise. It turns out we were breaking all sorts of rules.
I remember feeling indignant at his words, then seized by shame. There was so much we didn’t know. At the time, many of us didn’t have driver’s licenses or legal citizenship. We had so freshly arrived that some didn’t know how to speak English, beyond a few glancing pleasantries. A fishing license? My mother recalls hunting snails and cockles as a child in our hometown in the An Giang Province, their whorled bodies hiding a succulence that would later have to be pried out. Nature, an open buffet for anyone who had the patience and inclination.
Of course, that was a different place, a different time. Overharvesting continues to loom over U.S. coastlines, no matter how many aquacultural remedies we apply. How does anyone fight the frantic pace of human consumption, the greed of so many taking more than their share? I’m drawn back to these clambakes, partially for the myth of abundance we once held. We thought there would be more than enough to go around. America, the land of plenty.
On the Gulf Coast of Florida, there are two species of clams: the Southern hard clam and the Northern hard clam. They may even hybridize. The role of clams in an aquatic ecosystem is unparalleled. They are filter feeders, and their gill system can quickly and efficiently cleanse the water that passes through them. A single 2-inch clam can filter an estimated 4.5 gallons of water per day.
After ecological disturbances, such as hurricanes, the Northern hard clam has shown itself to be particularly proficient at speeding the recovery of seagrasses—a catalyst of local air quality that has historically affected Florida’s most dependable economic boon: tourism. The state this year announced plans to award more than $30 million to Florida organizations encouraging the overall health of the Gulf, sometimes by putting clams back into the sea.
Here, I have to fight a writer’s instinct to conflate biodiversity and cultural diversity, making a metaphor where there is none. They are not the same. And yet.
Every one of us is richer for a heterogenous ecosystem. Our human race thrives not in uniformity, but when unexpected divergence is introduced. I’m not sure my family and our Vietnamese friends ever felt completely comfortable in America. There were microaggressions that became so commonplace we learned to expect them, like the tides. The snide comments edged with violence. That all-consuming feeling of not belonging. And yet, in the way that a clam holds the sediment inside of its shell, within its own silken folds, we locked away the trauma. We tried not to release the dirt back into the world.
In Saigon, there’s a street called Đường Ốc Dương Bá Trạc, or Snail Street, beloved by residents and tourists alike. Houses and alleyways are lined with long tables packed tightly together. Guests sit on plastic chairs surrounding each table, while cooks reach into bins full of scallops, snails, blood cockles, and clams, still damp from the sea. This is part of a tradition called “Ăn Ốc,” translated simply to “Eating Snails,” an extension of the warm and raucous nhậu drinking culture.
At these restaurants, you simply order from three columns designating the type of seafood you want to eat, your preparation preference (grilled, stir-fried, etc.), and the sauce of choice. It’s a chance for diners to fully customize their own plates, while sharing food into the long hours of the night. After you’re done eating, you throw your shells into plastic buckets under the tables—or on the ground itself. The messiness of shellfish allows freedom from convention. There’s an anonymous quality to these Ốc restaurants, a transitory condition that coaxes out confessions and laughter. Friends become lovers. Strangers become friends.
In my twenties, I visited Nha Trang, a gorgeous port city in the south of Vietnam known for its surfer culture and rich seafood offerings. I watched the fishermen haul nets from the sea, then display their wares on the sand. You could fill a bag with shellfish, then take it straight to the restaurants, where they’d cook your finds for a nominal fee.
That was my only brief experience of Ốc culture, as a visitor and tourist, but my family and their friends grew up with such entertainments. It makes sense that they would seek to recreate something like that in their new land. I like to think, too, that they were passing along whatever inheritance they could to us kids, first-generation immigrants who would grow up away from the language and lore of our ancestry. To survive a diaspora, you listen for the echoes of your homeland. In those echoes, perhaps, you can rest, thinking not of survival, for once, but of pleasure.
After my early clamming experiences, sleepily tagging along with the adults near the shallows, I learned to enjoy clams—all bivalves, really. Many times, in my adulthood, I wished I had better appreciated the seafood culture of the Gulf. The easy access. Those drives down to the beach with the windows open, sand clinging to your ankles when you left.
We haven’t kept in touch with those Vietnamese families from the old clamming days. Maybe they would remember things differently, with a darker cast. Clamming for sustenance rather than recreation. Or maybe they still clam at low tide, skirting past the headlights with their trowels. Building bonfires that stretch high into the darkening sky.
Recently, I ordered clams from a new restaurant down the street advertising seafood boils. We live in Ohio, so I won’t pretend that my expectations were high. The clams arrived in a salty, buttery broth. Only half of them opened. The rest were shut tightly, mockingly, signaling they were likely dead before they even reached the pot. The riven clams’ flesh was tiny and rubbery, tasting more of salt than the sea. I left unsatisfied.
So maybe there’s no chance of recreating the past; not exactly as it happened on the Gulf, at least. But I’ll continue to chase the clams of my youth anyway—under bridges, in the shallows of a narrow inlet at dawn, up and down the coasts that recede by year. I’ll remain convinced that one pure, heady swallow of sea, of memory, is always worth the pursuit.
Thao Thai is a writer and bivalve enthusiast living in the Midwest. Her work has been published in The Sunday Long Read, Eater, Catapult, Cup of Jo, and others. Follow her on Instagram and sign up for her newsletter.
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