Mortlock Clam & Coconut Delight


“You don’t eat clam? I thought many people in the US eat clam?”

We had just returned from our full day of clam gathering when I was approached with this question. Turns out, that usually when the women are returning in the boats, they snack on raw clam, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Now that we were back on shore, Telo, one of the women’s husbands whose English was nearly perfect, told me that the ladies were shocked that I didn’t eat clam. He also added that since I had politely declined the snack offer, the women had abstained as well, not wanting to eat in front of me. I tried to explain to him that we are not from a place near the sea, and therefore, I was not accustomed to eating clams raw. I stumbled around for the right words, embarrassed that I had stifled the fun.

The creamy bowls of Cambell’s Condensed Clam Chowder that I ate as a child didn’t really count as truly eating clam, did they? Having lived all of my life in inland states, far from the oceans that border the US, I had little exposure to eating clams (or any seafood for that matter!). Cruising has definitely expanded my palate, although I still prefer a good homestyle meatloaf and mashed potatoes over whole fried fish anyday!


I am continuously amazed at the time and effort cooking takes in the islands. This clam dish required hours of preparation, beginning a few days prior. To think, I am usually trying to figure out what to cook for dinner an hour before we’re supposed to eat! But without grocery stores or refridgeration, careful timing and planning is required.

The same day we gathered clams, the women would wake up in the middle of the night to start the ‘moo-moo’, a fire built of coconut husks and volcanic stones that is then covered with large leaves and burlap (or even old t-shirts) to create a steam oven. Days before, hundreds of dry coconut shells were scraped out to serve as nature’s ramekins. The shredded coconut was grated and squeezed by hand, a far cry from the minimal effort it takes me to zip open a can of the sweet milk.
By dawn, when I arrived, the ladies were eager to get the assembly line going. We sat on overturned buckets or plastic deck chairs around three huge bowls - one filled with the clams that had been boiled already, one with rich coconut milk, and one with coconut water. Coffee mugs served as the ladles, as we’d pass along the coconut shells and pour in each ingredient. Scoopful of clams. Half a mug of milk. Half a mug of water. Judith sat next to me, making sure my measurements were satisfactory and giving either a nod of acceptance or a quick gesture instructing me to add more. Then, Becky bent over the fire to precariously balance the shells against each other and fit as many as possible over the bed of hot rocks. Once the rocks were completely covered with the filled shells, the ladies covered them with broad banana leaves and heavy cloth to seal in the steam. In a few hours, the meal would be ready.

Meanwhile, I reached in my backpack and pulled out a jar of instant coffee and two jam jars - one with powdered milk and the other with sugar. It was time for a coffee break! The ladies hurried to get their mugs, and we sat together reminiscing about our past few days of work. Sure, it was laborious, but with everyone pitching in, it was also crazy fun. We laughed about that huge wave that knocked me over and about how clumsy I was trying to cut out the clams. They poked fun at themselves and each other with a comfort and closeness that I had rarely witnessed anywhere else. I felt privileged to be in on the joke.

As I sat with these women on numerous other occasions, I noticed how the tasks required to sustain life on an island created a beautiful bond and shared purpose within their community. When I would comment about how hard they worked, they truly didn’t understand, because they had never known any different! One woman said she loved to work, and as I sat with them, I finally realized why. Work was as social as it was practical. Tasks brought them together and allowed for opportunities to chat while accomplishing something together. One woman sat outside the hut weaving a wall panel from pandanus leaves to help renovate her mother’s home. Another sat inside braiding coconut husks into strong rope that could be used to lash canoes and homes together. Yet another sat on a stool with a huge bowlful of taro roots between her feet, nimbly peeling each one for supper. Across the path, ladies were helping a single mother weave roof panels to replace the ones that were dissintegrating. Everyone pitched in. Everyone took care of everyone. Everyone belonged and was valuable to the community’s success.

I looked all around me and saw the value of working together. It made me pause and think about our family. Why is work dreaded and plodded through by our kids - and by me, if I’m totally honest? How would working together strengthen us individually and as a family unit? When was the last time we shared a common purpose that required hard work? What bonds are we missing out on when we decide work is just easier to do on our own, rather than getting the kids involved? In all of our busyness back home, we outsourced so much of the tasks required to run our household - yardwork, oil changes, car washes, baking, general maintenance. Seeing the joy and connection that work brought to these ladies challenged me to try to change the way we do things. I want what they have here. Vulnerability, interdependence, cooperation, community.

Epilogue - Yes, I did sample the coconut clam delicacy, and found it quite tasty (although the chewy texture I could have done without!!) The kids tried it, too, but I found out later that Michael faked having to pee so that he could inconspicuously spit his bite out in the bushes!!)

As for the working together bit, although it was tough to initiate, a few family projects did get accomplished - our cockpit enclosures washed and wiped down, the dinghy cleaned, and the bottom scrubbed. (These were spaced out over a few months, not all attempted in one afternoon!) I quickly learned to give the kids a set area or time frame (or both) to work in. That way, it didn’t seem so overwhelming or never ending. Also, I kept my mouth shut and tried to only encourage, not nitpick. In the end, we did bond over our shared purpose and accomplishments! An added bonus was the conversation that flowed out of my kids as we worked. The distraction of the tasks created space and time for them to open up and let the conversation flow. Working together as a family is a win-win!!

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