“Unhinge with us.” This wanderlust-evoking motto, along with an evocative photo of a solitary clammer framed against a backdrop of the sun setting over the water, is the first thing that appears when you visit the Clamity Janes website. And after spending time with two of the four Janes — Stephanie Pinerio and Cheryl Horsfall — I can confirm this slogan isn’t just a clever nod to the bivalves they so adore. These laid-back ladies love adventure, laughter and living their best NoFo lives — whether they’re out in the bays digging for bivalve gold or slinging their “North Fork famous” stone cold clam dip at events around town.
These Janes, much like their iconoclast namesake, also wholeheartedly embrace the idea of bucking convention.
“[Calamity Jane] was riding horses, wearing pants, cussing, playing poker,” Cheryl beams, “like a woman who just did what she wanted to do. And we’re just a bunch of women out here doing what we want to do.”
She recounts, “One of the first times we were all in waders together, it was New Year’s Day — we went out clamming on the side of the road, and it was super cold. Am I allowed to curse? You can bleep it out! But you feel like a real badass when you’re doing a tailgate in winter with your best girlfriends in your clam gear — drinking whiskey and digging clams.”
Steph quickly adds, “We had a guy basically do a double take and swerve and stop and ask, ‘What are you ladies doing?!’ I think it freaked him out to see women out there.”
WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN
But the women of the North Fork are, indeed, out there. Cheryl notes, “There are more women on the water than ever before — female farmers, boat captains, fisherwomen, hatchery owners … We partner with Little Ram, and they’re an awesome female-owned company.”
Every Wednesday evening through mid-summer, Steph and Cheryl joined Elizabeth Peeples and Stefanie Bassett, the owners/operators of Little Ram Oyster Company, at The Shoals food truck in Southold where the quartet sold Little Ram oysters, Clamity Janes’ clam dip, and Fishwife tinned fish, along with local beer and wine.
Cheryl continues, “The great thing is they’re focusing on other female-owned businesses here as well, so the tin fish company is a female-owned business, we are and a lot of the alcohol partners they work with are as well, like Chronicle Wines — women supporting women!”
A CLAMMING CALAMITY
Though these ladies are now seasoned clamming pros, they say additional inspiration for their brand came shortly after the group began clamming together — born out of what Steph describes as “an actual clamming calamity day where everything went wrong. Cheryl wasn’t there for it.”
Cheryl starts: “Apparently, my friend almost drove my Jeep off the boat ramp.”
Steph, not missing a beat, deadpans: “I impaled myself with a clam rake.”
Cheryl volleys: “And then someone else lost her entire basket of clams. Sunk it.”
Steph rebounds: “Sunk it in the boat channel.”
Cheryl chuckles. “Our friend called me and said, ‘Oh my god, Cheryl – it was a calamity without you!’ And I said that’s the name – Clamity Janes!”
Because local conservation is very important to the Janes, my day with them kicks off with a trip to Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center in Southold to learn more about the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program’s Back to the Bays initiative, which includes restoration projects to restore scallops, oysters and clams back into local bays and coves.
Once we all arrive, Kate Rossi-Snook, Back to the Bays aquaculture coordinator, takes us on a tour of the hatchery, where I’m shocked to learn they produce millions of clams in a single season!
We walk past the conditioning tanks for the broodstock (the clam adults), which get separated into 20 to 30 animals per cohort. Kate explains: “In the wintertime, we start making them think it’s spring. So we’re raising the temperature of the water, and we’re feeding them this nice rich smoothie kind of thing with algae that they love. After about six to eight weeks of conditioning, they’re ready to spawn.”
Kate tells me the spawning process is the same for oysters, hard clams and scallops. “Bivalves are broadcast spawners,” she says, “so the females release the eggs into the water column, the males release the sperm, they become fertilized, and within hours you can see cell division.”
She continues, “It takes about two weeks for them to really start looking like teeny tiny actual clams, even sticking a tiny foot out. From there, we’re constantly sieving them and sorting them by size so they don’t outcompete, and then we move them to the nursery stage, and then eventually to the FLUPSYs over in Mattituck before they’re ready for reseeding in the fall.”
A Floating Upweller System, or FLUPSY, provides increased water flow for shellfish to promote accelerated growth in open water while protecting them from predation until they’re large enough to survive on their own in the wild.
(left) Hatchery downwellers provide a slow, constant stream of fresh water to the bivalves. (bottom right) Stephanie with Kate Rossi-Snook, Back to the Bays Aquaculture Coordinator at the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center, cleaning the filters and sides of the nursery upwellers that pump in fresh water from the bay to hundreds of thousands of tiny baby clams. (Photos by David Benthal)
The whole process, from spawning to seeding, takes roughly 9 or 10 months, she says.
The Janes got involved with the marine center last year. Cheryl proudly tells me, “We made a donation to the program, and officially adopted 350,000 baby clams! In November, we helped reseed them into local water, and we’ll do that again this year — hopefully with a fundraising event attached to it.”
She continues, “[Clamming] gives us a lot of enjoyment and pleasure, and we love sharing it with people. But we did want to figure out a way to give back to the bays and the community — to make sure we’re supporting shellfish restoration, to make sure clams stay abundant and part of the local ecology. That’s also one of the reasons we made our clam-danas — a portion of the proceeds will help fund more clams every year. Also, there’s nothing cuter than a clam baby!”
CLAMMING WITH THE CLAMITY JANES
The Janes are excited to now offer Clamity Experiences to the public.
Steph says,” A lot of people come out here, and they’ll see people out in the water clamming, and it looks like the coolest thing, but they just don’t know where to start. So we’re able to take people out and bring rakes, bring baskets, give them a little instruction, show them the basic technique of clamming, how to do it — and then, hopefully, turn them into lifelong clammers.”
After bidding Kate and the baby clams adieu, the Janes take me to their secret clamming spot.
“So, finding spots is not easy,” Cheryl laments. “Basically, when you get your clamming license, they give you a Xeroxed sheet of paper you can barely read that tells you where you can and can’t go. But there is a shellfishing map online through the Department of Environmental Conservation. It tells you if an area is closed for the season, if it’s red and you can’t go there because the water is not good, or a light blue color means it’s open year-round, so go for it. Once we had that basic map, we opened up our satellite maps and started looking at the bays and the inlets. After we identified a good location, we drove there to see if we could get there on foot without crossing somebody’s private property. Our secret spot was found that way.”
They say more common spots, like off the causeway in Orient, are tough because a lot of people go there as their first clamming spot, so you have to go really far out at low tide to find anything.
Once we get to the spot and after I remove my blindfold (kidding!), it’s between high and low tide, so I borrow a pair of waders and grab a rake, a clam gauge and a mesh bag to store my treasures. As we walk up to the idyllic waterscape, dozens of fiddler crabs go scrambling for cover in their mud-hole huts, and I take a minute to soak in the breathtaking view.
We slosh through the muck until we’re about waist-deep in water, and my lesson in the proper raking technique begins.
“You want to put the rake with the points facing down about an inch or two into the mud and pull it back until you feel something stick,” Cheryl demonstrates. “Clams are not very deep, and they go in sideways.”
Steph chimes in with enthusiasm: “Really put your back into it!”
Cheryl smiles and continues, “Once you feel something, move the rake back behind it and dig a little deeper to get under it and scoop it out. Generally, if you find one, you’re gonna find another.”
During our time on the water, there is plenty of laughter and encouragement as we celebrate our successes, but there are also long periods of silence where we’re all zenning out on the task at hand while taking in the beauty and serenity of the East End landscape.
“When you’re out here, you develop a deeper appreciation for the water and how everything’s all tied together. It’s actually incredible, foraging for your own food and thinking, ‘Hey, this is the original grocery store, right? This is how people used to get their food.’ And there’s something really cool about connecting with that,” Cheryl says.
“And it’s calming,” Steph adds. “I always say if you like to do crossword puzzles or knit or do anything repetitive, that’s what it’s like out here with a clam rake. We’re usually far enough apart where we’re both clamming and joking, but a lot of the time we’re just out here together alone.”
The ladies tell me there’s an urban legend that a man went clamming alone in Coecles Harbor on Shelter Island and never came back. The theory is he got stuck in a sinkhole and the tide came in and drowned him, which is why they say you should never go clamming alone.
Steph tells me there is good news for members of their stone cold clam dip cult following. The ladies are working with East End Food Institute to create a tamper-proof container so they can sell it at farm stands this summer, along with a frozen version of their highly coveted clam pizza. And they aren’t stopping at food. These entrepreneurs are cracking into the beverage world as well with their own distilled liquor made from clams that they hope will hit stores in the fall.
“All the products in it are from New York,” Cheryl shares. “The distillate base is made from New York State corn, the clams will be from out here, as will the botanicals that go into it. So it’s a very hyper-locally launched spirit — perfect to go with Micheladas, Bloody Marys, gin and tonics, etc.”
Keep up with the Clamity Janes’ whereabouts and any future pop-ups on their Instagram page @clamityjanes.