“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

Sqeamishtic: Clam Digging in Alaska

Put a worm on a hook? No way. Clean a fish? Absolutely not. Pick a splinter out of a finger? Not easily. Deep cuts? Unh unh. Boils, gooshing and oozing? Are you out of your mind?

Clam digging in Ninilchick, a tiny Russian community down the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, Alaska, made me face the truth: I’m not squeamish. I am just easily grossed out.

I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up, which is what being squeamish does; I feel like my throat’s closing in a gag reflex. I gag.

Signs of the early Russian Orthodox settlers are still visible in Ninilchick.

The community is built around its small, picturesque onion-domed church, which sits up on the bluff looking out to Cook Inlet and across to. . .


. . .Mts. Ilyamna and Redoubt in the Aleutian Range.

Majestic and gorgeous, Ilyamna is dangerous; it had claimed many an aircraft, small plane, crew, and passengers through the years. Redoubt was and is still tantalizing. It has been threatening to blow its volcanic top all summer. They are snow-capped all year, matching the summertime white clouds against the blue sky -- when it’s not raining.

It’s so insanely gorgeous up there, looking across the inlet, that you think you’re crazy. That’s what Alaska’s beauty does; it makes you feel crazy.

At age 15, I thought we were all crazy to be in Ninilchick, camping, about to go clam digging. I had never done any of this kind of stuff. I did cheerleading. But I thought it was crazy to follow dad’s military orders in the first place, sending us to Alaska the summer before.

Summer of ’59 was our first for camping in Alaska. Come to think of it, it was our first for any kind of camping anywhere. You do things you’ve never done before in Alaska. Our Siamese cat Charlie started going camping with us to every site, sleeping down deep in the sleeping bag with one of us. Charlie became our group’s camping mascot for the next three years.

In addition to learning to dig for clams, I also learned to smoke in Ninilchick campground. Smoking helped ward off the huge and gross Alaskan summertime mosquitoes. They looked more like the Alien in the movie with Sigourney Weaver, all drooling and aggressive, than any insect species I can think of. Blowing smoke on them helps keep them away from your flesh. Isn’t that what Sigourney did to the Alien, smoked it with fire?

That morning we all suited up to dig for clams. The tide was way out, maybe a mile out. You really couldn’t see the water. Alaska has one of the largest differences in high and low tides in the world, and it can be treacherous.

It was cold that morning. I had on a couple of sweat shirts, a knit hat, and rubber boots up above my knees. But nothing on my hands. If you wore gloves, you couldn’t feel the clam.

Here’s how you do it: walk head down, looking for a bubble-like place in the sand; fall to your knees and start digging, way down, feeling around for the clam shell; pull it up through the sand that had caved in around your hand and arm; throw it in the bucket and keep going – walking, walking, digging, digging, digging. Then suddenly you realize that you’re wearing a hole in the knees of your jeans and your hands and arms are nearly bleeding from the abrasive sand filing the skin off your arm. Gross.

Missing Fabulous Chowder

Finally, the bucket if full and you have to slog back to the trailer and camp fire. The rubber waders feel like cement shoes.

“Would you all look at this!” some of the grown-ups, who weren’t doing the clamming, would say. “We’re going to have clam chowder tonight.”

Then there’s the part about cleaning the clams. No one mentioned that.

“What you do,” said some grown-up, “is cut that foot thing off, slide the knife into the shell, force it open, and scoop the clam into this bowl.”

“Oh, is that right?” I thought.

But I got started. The problem began immediately. I cut the “foot thing” off the first clam. My gawd if the thing didn’t keep jumping around. Cut off and still moving. It was the grossest thing I’d seen. I don’t remember if I got someone else to that part or just finished that part without looking. In any case, everyone raved about the clam chowder that night around the camp fire.

I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t eat it then and could never since then. It’s just too gross.

So, instead of a clam chowder recipe, I’ll offer a grits recipe that appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune, which a friend sent to me; she had eaten at a Huntsville, Alabama, restaurant where they served this dish.

Grits with corn and Vidalia onion

Posted by The Times-Picayune June 11, 2008 2:43PM

In this recipe from “Bon Appetit, Y'all,” author and trained French chef Virginia Willis (http://www.virginiawillis.com/)  writes that a chef friend introduced her to the technique of grating onion on a box grater, instead of chopping. The grated onion almost melts into the grits, adding a little additional moisture as well as a layer of flavor.


Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, grated

Scraped kernels from 2 ears fresh sweet corn (about 1 cups)

2 cups whole milk

2 cups water

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup stone-ground or coarse-ground grits

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 3 ounces)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until transparent, about 2 minutes. Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kernels become soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the milk, water, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the grits, decrease the heat to low, and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 50 minutes. Stir in the butter, cheese, parsley and chives. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

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