In Charleston, you are far more likely to see people wearing preppy clam-diggers than people actually digging for clams.
Clamming is usually thought of as the Northern equivalent of our crabbing pastime involving chicken necks, string, and a net. But clams actually do grow here and thrive in the Lowcountry’s uber-fertile and lovely smelling pluff mudd.
“How do you like my office?” asks Toby VanBuren as he gazes around at the picturesque creek and marsh where he harvests clams to make his living. He harvests his clams from marsh beds near Breach Inlet that are leased from the state. His methods have evolved over the years to address the challenges that his work presents.
It’s a specialized field, and Van Buren’s one of only three people in Charleston and forty in the entire state who make their living clamming. Luckily, with the demand for locally-grown sustainable food on the rise, men like him are not a dying breed but a healthy sign of the future.
VanBuren sits on a bucket with his bare hands in the pluff mudd and pulls out a few clams every couple of seconds. With a smile on his face and a calm demeanor, he does his solitary work in the glow of the morning sunrise. He’s been in the business of clamming for 20 years now. Before that, it was a mixed bag of shrimping, crabbing, shark-fishing and working as a minister. You can still find him preaching occasionally at the Unitarian and the Circular Congregational Church downtown.
Luscious bivalves have a lot of zealous predators including sting rays, crabs, and flounder, which necessitate protecting his harvesting beds with nets anchored with PVC piping. The custom-designed aluminum boat he uses can be maneuvered into small creeks and shallows and keeps the bottom of the boat, where the clams are initially tossed, almost as cool as the water temperature.
Toby’s clams are “free-range” because they can move around under the nets. They’re harvested at dead low tide, tossed in plastic laundry baskets, swished through seawater, sorted by size (little guys get thrown back), rinsed again with freshwater, bagged and then delivered in the afternoon to the 20 or so restaurants that buy from him.
His clams are sold to some of the best restaurants east of the Cooper (The Post House, Red Drum, and Atlanticville to name a few) that take pride in serving great local seafood. He makes a special cameo on The Boathouse menu with “Toby’s Breach Inlet Littleneck Clams” served with a bacon-tomato-spinach ragout.
He is licensed to sell to both restaurants and the general public, so you know what that means. You can be happy as a clam too.
Reach Toby at 843-367-3986 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Story and photos by: Dee Dee Arthur