When life gives you clams

Island traditions can be made anytime, even in these new times.

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Ferrying toward Martha’s Vineyard for Memorial Day weekend, it was the first of many visits to come this summer. It was also the first since last August’s annual family getaway tradition, having spent the past too many months staying separated and safe. But here we joyously were, the memory of that vacation and so many dating back decades doing what it tends to do — that’s not a tear, it’s just ocean mist! A mist of joy and relief, the first Island sighting this year, like the anticipated warm embrace of a precious loved one after being away too long. This return was different from the last, bittersweet: an emotional contradiction of sailing out of a storm toward a sunny horizon, versus the dark and swirling waters of 2020 — the fear, risk, struggle, and sacrifice finally drifting, shrinking, consumed in the wake.

As we rounded the bend for Oaks Bluff Harbor, fond memories of a last summer’s waning waist-high tide came flooding back — a slowly setting sun framing the French girl’s legs flailing in the air — her body upside down, bikini bottom visible through the surface of the pristine and brackish waters of Vineyard Haven. Time and again with eyes closed and breath held, one of our daughters’ numerous tagalong friends excitedly foraged in the mucky sand with bare hands — regularly bursting upright, hand thrust in the air clutching a quahog and shouting to the rest of us, “I have won!” (Or, “I have one!”), either emphasis triumphant.

Led by my brother Dave, who had recently joined the exodus from NYC to Martha’s Vineyard — from Madison Avenue to Beach Road — a transplanted, now newspaperman and impassioned clam whisperer in his spare time, seven of us were guided from our large holiday household to his secret sweet spot. That first day’s haul would set the stage for what we playfully dubbed “Clam Week.” Every day inspired by sunshine, friendship, the nature of Vineyard life, and, of course, the low cost of a permit-component of feeding so many, with half being newly unemployed and managing the rising tide of uncertainty while navigating a pandemic-altered life.

Every Vineyard vacation brings a sentimental sweetness, but last summer added the monumental opportunity to put this world’s then growing struggles in the rearview for at least “a minute.” At the time, we committed to letting go of the endless, gnawing noise of threat and political dissension. We came together from “faraway” places: France, England, Brooklyn, Concord, and Lowell. It wasn’t long before the first rule of our vacation was proposed: “No COVID talk.” Amendments were added along the way: “No politics” (thankfully!), and then, oddly, “zucchini” made the list. For the record, there was a lot of squash on hand. “Enough with the zucchini already” a feisty daughter urged. With so many restaurants closed last summer, and our own mission to stay safe and protect others, we leaned more heavily than usual into the wholesome Island mojo that captures our heart annually, with every meal home-cooked, communal, and community-centered upon Vineyard offerings. As the owner of multiple Merrimack Valley restaurants, I suffered alongside my Vineyard “kin” — the summer lifeblood of so many businesses threatened by a virus then, and now again, by a shortage of staff to help those survivors prepare for a regrowth and a return to the more typical day-to-day struggle of restaurant life. And pained we wait. For students, or visa-carrying natives from Jamaica and Eastern Europe, anyone departing Vail, or Miami, or Mars! “We will train.” 

Back then, grateful for every day, and also for that freshly brewed pot of coffee, we shuffled one by one into each morning’s kitchen, where soon began the daily banter of which beach we would visit, and then, inevitably, the plan for dinner! As passionate supporters of those in our industry, it felt wrong that these frequent conversations all but ignored our favorite places to eat — annual traditions falling by the wayside as most offered “takeout only,” if they were even open. Alas, Clam Week 2020 raged on, tucked away on a hilltop with a house full of food enthusiasts. When life gives you raspberries … we further foraged an abundance on the property, for fresh-baked clafoutis or a simple syrup, complementing daily menus with herbs from the huge garden and by supporting local fishermen and farmers. Each day culminated in our rotating gourmands directing the picking, shucking, chopping, and mixing. “I’ve got the mignonette,” “I’ll bake some bread,” and “Who can whip up a roux?” — sexy talk — most meals beginning with super-fresh chilled clams on the half shell. Thank you, Dave, thank you earth’s bounty. 

Although this year there will be no huge family vacation — we’ve all got some life catching up to do — we are thrilled to be back with hope and normalcy trending. Yesterday’s lunch at the always excellent Lookout Tavern was matched by last night’s “five star” dinner at the just opened Lambert’s Cove Inn restaurant, which could not have been more perfect. We were thrilled by the new general manager, visiting each table with gratitude and enthusiasm, while supporting an excellent and attentive staff. And, the food … that tuna crudo, OMG!

I am finishing this article with a cold but expected driving rain (Memorial Day weekend!), the wind whistling through this Menemsha cottage, looking forward to tonight’s celebration with friends in “the barn,” excited for fresh baked bread, greens, and cheese sourced from the Grey Barn (wow!), to accompany seafood from the Net Result, and of course, once again, “Dave’s clams!”

Summer 2021, here we come.