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16 July 1999

Vol. III, No. 2

Feature Article

Knee-deep veep

Alumni and development VP Reaske's shellfish books back on the shelves

by Brian Fitzgerald

Christopher Reaske

Christopher Reaske digs in one of his "secret" clamming spots on Shelter Island, N.Y., a 12-mile-by-5-mile strip of land at the end of Long Island Sound. Photo by Mary Ellen McGayhey

As vice president for development and alumni relations, Christopher Reaske raises a lot of money for the University: his office recently exceeded the $72 million goal set for donations this year. And when he's not raking in the clams for BU, Reaske is digging for real bivalves -- in East Coast tidal flats, usually on Shelter Island, N.Y., his favorite vacation spot.

In fact, after more than 20 years of stalking shellfish, Reaske had become so skilled at the activity that he wrote a book about it in 1986. The Compleat Clammer was followed by The Compleat Crab & Lobster Book in 1989. Both received favorable reviews as informative guides on gathering and preparing the sea's finest. His editor, Peter Burford, of Burford Books, asked Reaske to revise the books this year, resulting in updated editions, which are now available at Barnes & Noble at Boston University and other bookstores.

But they're more than just handbooks. Included are facts, trivia, and how clamming, crabbing, and lobstering bring one closer to nature. Reaske writes about the wildlife that add to the tranquility of the largely solitary activity. "Standing still, alone at the edge of the water on a long stretch of deserted beach, or walking slowly through an inland saltwater marsh at low tide, I feel very much at peace with an unchanging part of the world," writes Reaske in The Compleat Clammer. "I find it easy to center in this world that is characterized by natural bouquets of sea lavender, by sea grasses quivering in the breeze."

"Clamming provides a wonderful contrast to the workplace craziness that we all live with," says Reaske in his office in the School of Management building. His is a frantically paced job, in which world travel is a constant. "When you're digging for clams, you can think about other things, but you're mostly thinking about getting clams," he laughs. "There's no fax or phone or anything that makes it a multitasked activity."

For the second straight year, Gerald Tice, executive chef of Dining Services at BU, has won a prize for his not-so-traditional clam chowder at Boston's annual Chowderfest competition.

Tice's entry came in third at the contest, which was held at City Hall Plaza July 5 during the 18th annual Harborfest celebration. "It's a very popular recipe," he says. "I got a lot of good feedback from it."

First prize this year went to Gary Mitchell of the Back Bay Restaurant Group; in second place was the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

Nine competing chefs ladled out samples of their steaming concoction through the afternoon, as the temperature reached a clammy 99 degrees and crowds cast votes to determine Boston's best version of the New England specialty. Turnout for the event was uncharacteristically light. "I went through only about 100 gallons of chowder. Last year it was 190," Tice notes. "It was just so hot -- it really wasn't a chowder day."

Tice grew up in Boston and was saucier at the Sheraton Boston Hotel before taking his position at BU in 1992.

Early in his hotel career, he says, "clam chowder was on the menus, but the actual recipe they were serving was just so-so. I started playing with the recipe 15 years ago and kind of fine-tuned it over the last few years."

The formula he improvised varies a tad from the traditional stew of cream, clams, and potatoes. Rather than the standard round yellow onions, it calls for leeks, which impart a sweetness to the dish. Bacon and salt pork give the chowder a smoky undertone, though Tice omits these items when preparing the dish on campus during Lent.

Last year, Tice placed second at the Chowderfest, as he did in the 1984 competition. Next year he'll return for a rematch with the Goliaths of Boston's hospitality industry. "I'm still waiting for that Silver Bowl," he insists.

Meanwhile, it pleases Tice that his participation in the event has brought recognition to BU's Dining Services -- a team that challenges conventional wisdom about institutional food. "We pride ourselves," he says, "on competing with some of the best restaurants in the area for quality."

-- Hope Green

Gerald Tice's Clam Chowder
3/4 cup margarine
6 oz. diced salt pork
8 bacon slices
1/2 cup diced onions
1/2 cup diced leeks
one stalk celery, diced
2 cups flour
12 oz. fresh minced clams
16 oz. clam juice
1-1/4 lbs. potatoes, 1/2-inch diced
12 oz. heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
(2 tbs. parsley)
(2 tbs. butter)

In a large pot or saucepan, melt margarine and salt pork. Add bacon, onions, leeks, and celery until vegetables are translucent. Sprinkle with flour and add minced clams and clam juice. Add potatoes and bring to a boil, cooking until potatoes are tender, approximately 15 minutes. Reduce to a simmer, add heavy cream and season to taste with salt and pepper. (Optional: whisk in creamy butter and sprinkle with parsley for garnish.) Serve immediately. Serves 12.

That's not to say, however, that one can't maximize one's effectiveness in the endeavor. Finding clams is easy: Reaske describes tapping the mud with a spade and feeling squirts of water hit his legs from buried steamers, digging down, trying to escape. Those who read The Compleat Clammer will be able to differentiate between clam holes and fiddler crab holes (you don't want the inhabitant of the latter clamping on your finger) and learn how to widen the hole with a circular motion in order to win this cat-and-mouse game with Mya arenaria, the soft-shelled clam.

A few weeks before Reaske began to write the book, he observed terns diving for fish and noted their "smooth, symphonic efficiency" as they hunted. "Observing these beautiful birds made my principal goal in this book come clear -- to convey a sense of 'doing it right,' to explain that there are time-proven ways to gather clams efficiently and to do so in harmony with nature," he writes. With a little practice, one can use a clam rake "almost like a dancing partner."

Reaske knows someone who backs his outboard motor onto a muddy bank and blows the clams out of their holes, he writes, but that is not the right way. The tools of his weekend and vacation trade are a pointed spade, a pail, a pitchfork or short-handled clam rake, and insulated rubber gloves if the water is cold.

He points out that although much of the pleasure in clamming is getting close to nature, it's always a good idea to wear old sneakers in case of broken glass or sharp shells on the bottom. Clamming is not quite a blood sport, but there are other hazards too: the main one being jellyfish, especially when venturing into shoulder-deep water. "I stay out of their way," he says. "But I've been stung, and the pain goes away quickly."

Illustrations by Suzanne T. R. Crocker, Reaske's daughter, also help in telling the differences among clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. Reaske explains to the reader where to find each. Although there are more than 50 kinds of clams regularly eaten around the world, he focuses on the principal ones gathered in this country.

Reaske, a cum laude Yale University graduate, earned a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard University. Noticing that bookstores were filled with books about fishing but none on clamming, he decided to "write it all down." The research in the book includes facts from wildlife and biology journals. "The how-to part of the book flowed smoothly and quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long," he says.

The book might be the first one written completely at high tide. "Low tide is for clamming," he points out.

When he finished the first book, he writes in the introduction to The Compleat Crab & Lobster Book, "I sensed that my work had just begun." Crabs and lobsters: the words "evoke seemingly contradictory pictures that both frighten us and make our mouths water," he writes. The latter might just happen to readers when they get to the recipes.

Reaske reports that the revised and updated editions are generating interest: he has been invited to speak at the University of Rhode Island's oceanography department at its Narragansett campus in the fall, and radio and newspaper interviews are "heating up." And for Reaske, the next best thing to clamming, crabbing, and lobstering is writing and talking about the subject.