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As China's Shellfish Import Ban Drags On Northwest Chefs (re)Learn How To Cook A Geoduck

Ashley Ahearn

It’s been almost two months since China banned all shellfish imports from most of the west coast after finding high levels of arsenic in a sample from Washington.
The move has hit Washington hard. Particularly the geoduck clam industry.
These long-necked oddities are a delicacy in China… but here in the Northwest, not so much. That might be changing. Ashley Ahearn headed to one of Seattle’s hottest restaurants to find out how one chef is whetting appetites for this local clam.

Michael Gifford: “My name is Michael Gifford we are at How To Cook a Wolf in Seattle, Washington.”

Ashley Ahearn: “And what are you doing right now?”

Michael Gifford: “Cooking geoduck.”

Gifford lines up the fist-sized clams on a shelf above the sink. Their necks drape down a foot or so over the edge, a yellowy-brown sheath maybe an inch or two thick.

Credit Ashley Ahearn
Gifford is ready to remove the skin from a geoduck’s neck.

Michael Gifford: "This is going to get a little raunchy. As you can see the geoduck is a very phallic looking animal. So what we do is we bring them in, let them relax a little bit, let them go down and get out to its natural length.”

Ahem. “Natural length” for a geoduck is usually around 3 feet.

Gifford drops a clam into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds and then…

Michael Gifford: “Into the ice water. Let that cool down. We don’t want to overcook it.”

The clam visibly tenses up when Gifford drops it into the ice water. You can see the shriveled skin start to separate from the rigid neck of the clam.

Michael Gifford: “There we are (peeling off skin) almost like a snake when you find the snakeskin. But there you go.”

The skin of the geoduck gathers more arsenic than the rest of the clam’s body. That’s what the Washington Department of Health found when they went back and tested more than 50 clams after the Chinese instituted the ban in early December.

The skin of every single clam had amounts of arsenic way above China’s safe levels.

The rest of the clams body parts – like the neck, the mantle and the gut ball – were ok, except for one sample.

Bill Dewey: “First step is always to remove the skin so we haven’t found any recipes or suggestions that eating the skin is appropriate.”

Bill Dewey is a spokesman for Taylor Shellfish. They’re one of the largest shellfish company in the country, based here in Washington.

He says the company has had more testing done on several different kinds of shellfish it sells. The levels of metals are all very low and some of them are naturally occurring, but they’re there.

Bill Dewey: “You will see arsenic, cadmium, selenium, all sorts of different metals some good for you some not good for you in all your shellfish.”

The Department of Health rigorously tests shellfish for biotoxins and bacteria, but it doesn’t regularly test for metals.

Past tests from the DOH have shown metals in shellfish at levels below public health concerns. As with all things, it’s a question of how much shellfish you eat, and some Indian tribes and Asian immigrant communities eat considerably more shellfish than the rest of the population.

Michael Gifford slices delicate strips of geoduck flesh off the neck of the clam.

He’s finely mincing fresno chilis and celery. Then he smears a green stripe of avocado puree across the plate.

Gifford arranges the geoduck in pearly ruffles atop the avocado green and sprinkles some olive oil.

Michael Gifford: “Little bit of lemon (chop chop). We use fleur de sel, a very nice sea salt. And then we’ll get to eating. So, for your first one. For your first time. Please.”

Gifford hands me a forkful of geoduck.

Ahearn: “Wow.”

Michael Gifford: “Like clams on the half shell.

Picks up: Gifford: “The texture, it’s tender but there’s chew to it.”

Ahearn: “I was kind of expecting rubbery, looking at them from the outside. It’s a lot more subtle.”

Michael Gifford: “It’s not full of brine, but you’re getting that saltwater, you’re getting the ocean.”

Gifford remembers his first experience with geoduck. He had it at a sushi restaurant soon after he moved to Seattle from New Jersey.

Michael Gifford: “It was a great introduction, I was like “wow, I’ve never seen this before. It’s really unique.” We’re very fortunate here to have this product.”

But people didn’t always feel this way about geoducks, says Bill Dewey.

Bill Dewey: “In the 50s you’d be hard pressed to find geoduck on a menu, maybe on the hood canal in the Geoduck Tavern but in Seattle restaurants probably not too much.”

Dewey says Taylor Shellfish has been actively promoting geoduck to restaurants around the Northwest. There are now close to 20 restaurants in Seattle with geoduck on the menu.

But the domestic market isn’t making up for the industry’s losses abroad.

Geoduck can sell for close to 100/lb in China. Seattle restaurants pay around 20 dollars per pound.

And as the ban drags on, Dewey says Taylor Shellfish and others have had to make some tough cuts.

Bill Dewey: “We did our best through the holidays to keep people employed, but ultimately it’s gone on long enough that we’ve had to lay some people off.”

Taylor laid off 14 people and estimates its losses at upwards of a million dollars. Geoduck harvesters with the Suquamish and other tribes are slowly getting back to work, selling clams to other Asian countries.

The Department of Natural Resources is out close to 1 million dollars in revenue from geoduck harvested in state waters.

Dewey says he’s optimistic that China might lift the ban soon. But the federal government said there is no timeframe for that, and they have not had an official response from China.

For now, Geoduck may be a tough sell for Northwest foodies, but if more chefs like Michael Gifford have their way with this quirky clam, the future might look a little more delicious.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix