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As the sun retreats from its summit, inching down toward the horizon line separating the dark blue water around Ocracoke from the Carolina blue sky, Ruth Toth lowers a bright

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As the sun retreats from its summit, inching down toward the horizon line separating the dark blue water around Ocracoke from the Carolina blue sky, Ruth Toth lowers a bright

As the sun retreats from its summit, inching down toward the horizon line separating the dark blue water around Ocracoke from the Carolina blue sky, Ruth Toth lowers a bright orange fishing basket and well-worn aluminum clam rake into the boat. From under the brim of her sun hat, she glances back at her cedar-shingled home overlooking Pamlico Sound and Teach’s Hole Channel. She checks her watch: The tide is dropping. She climbs aboard, and her husband of 48 years, Bob, eases his Jones Brothers flat-bottom skiff away from the dock and sets out past Springer’s Point, toward Portsmouth Island.

Shucked clams on a roasting tray

Dug fresh from Ocracoke Inlet and purged of sand, these clams wait to turn into clams casino, chowder, or fritters. photograph by Baxter Miller

It’s a calm day, just right for clamming. The kind of day where, from afar, the water takes on a deep turquoise color and up close is as clear as crystal, its surface reflecting the occasional puffy cloud against a canvas of white sand. As the boat skims across the shallow sound, the steeple of Portsmouth’s Methodist church grows closer, and Bob eases off the throttle. The shoals are in sight. “Bob’s pretty good at putting us on them. He really is,” Ruth says in her pleasant, measured way.

With their spot claimed, a simple pleasure of summer commences — one that Ruth has cherished for the past 63 years.

• • •

Ruth comes by her love of clamming honestly. Raised between tobacco fields in Martin County, she began spending summers with her grandparents on Ocracoke the year she turned 7. Those summers would chart a course for the rest of her life. “When I was 8 years old, I announced one night at the supper table, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to live at the beach,’” she says with a chuckle. “Everybody laughed at me. To me, the beach meant Ocracoke because it was the only beach I’d ever been to.”

Ruth Toth rakes for clams in the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound

Ruth Toth spent summers on Ocracoke with her grandparents before moving to the island full-time in 1978. As a child, she learned from her grandfather how to fish, crab, and dig for clams. photograph by Baxter Miller

Those hot months, spent at her grandparents’ 1960s-era soundside cottage, were like a storybook. Sunup to sundown, Ruth whiled away her days running along the dock, fishing in the sound, and playing in the water. “Every May, Ruth’s mother would buy her a new bathing suit. And by July, she had to wear shorts over it because she had worn the bottom out,” Bob says, laughing.

A faded photograph shows Ruth’s grandfather sitting in the stern of a skiff, cigar hanging out one side of his mouth. Ruth looks down at the image. “Tagging along with my grandfather is how I started clamming,” she says. “I played in the water, mostly, but learned a little bit, too.” She put those early lessons to use when she moved to the island full-time in 1978.

• • •

Bob tosses an anchor off the bow, and the slow current swings the stern around. He cuts the outboard motor, and the hum is replaced with the call of gulls. Ruth sits on the gunwale and slips off the fiberglass edge into the water, clam rake in hand.

“You can clam anytime, but low tide, preferably,” she says. Wading in knee-deep water, she ties a rope loosely around her waist and attaches one end to the fish basket rigged with a pool noodle around the top edge. She makes her way from the boat, her bobbing basket trailing behind her.

She begins to slide the metal rake along the bottom of the sound. As the sand is startled, the water turns milky in the rake’s path. The occasional skate glides past and out of sight. Blue crabs dart and dodge Ruth’s shuffling feet. As she approaches a grass bed, digging a few inches deep into the sand, a tine of the rake makes a distinctive thunk.

A clam under water, raking up a clam, a basket full of clams

All you need to try your hand at clamming is a keen eye to spot clams tucked in the eelgrass, a rake to dredge the sandy bottom of the sound, and a basket to collect your findings. photograph by Baxter Miller

Ruth stops, satisfaction spreading across her face. She pulls back on the clam rake and raises it to the surface. There in the rake’s basket is a perfect chowder clam. She plucks it from the rake and tosses it into the basket. The clam lands with a splash. “Got one!” Her cheerful announcement breaks the contented silence that has settled over the sound and travels across the placid water to Bob, digging 20 yards away. He smiles in return. “I’ve never out-clammed her,” he says.

“They like grass beds. You’ll usually find some about a foot or so right off the edge,” Ruth says, continuing to rake. The eelgrass gently ebbs back and forth in the water as she meanders around the perimeter. The dance continues — rake, rake, thunk! She’s occasionally fooled by a stray oyster shell and sometimes rewarded with two or three clams at a time. Each thud delivers an equal thrill. Toss by toss, clams eclipse the bottom of the basket.

• • •

For Ruth, who grew up as one of six children, food has always been at the center of family life. “That’s how we celebrate. That’s how we console. That’s how we have fun,” she says.

But for 25 years, food was more than just a family tradition: It was the foundation of her professional life, too. In 1989, Ruth, who’d taught for 14 years at Ocracoke School, and Bob, a seasoned dredge boat captain, found themselves opening the doors of what would become one of Ocracoke’s most beloved restaurants, Café Atlantic.

The origin story is foggy. When asked how they came to open a restaurant, Bob says, “We took leave of our senses one evening.” Ruth counters: “We disagree with this story. He has his version; I have my version. I swear my version is true, but he’ll swear it’s not. Opening a restaurant was his idea.” Regardless of how Café Atlantic started, Ruth traded the classroom and Bob the dredge boat for the kitchen, she working the day shift and he the line at night.

Local seafood anchored the menu, and, of course, clams were a major draw. But one dish in particular commanded a devoted following. “Clams casino had never been served on this island — that I know of anyway — before we opened,” Ruth says. “It was an instant hit, especially with the locals. It was simple — garlic butter, a little breadcrumb or cracker crumb, Swiss cheese, and bacon. No pimentos, no pepper, no onions.”

Roasted under a blanket of garlic butter, Swiss cheese, and bacon, clams casino was one of Café Atlantic’s most iconic appetizers. photograph by Baxter Miller

Admiration for the dish extended beyond locals and repeat visitors. In 2013, Bob and Ruth’s nephew Eason decided to propose to his girlfriend. He made a reservation on the second floor of the restaurant, at a window table with a sweeping view of the island.

“Eason wanted the clams casino,” Bob says. “He gave me the diamond ring to put in the dish. I was a nervous wreck.” Bob placed the ring in an empty clam shell in the middle of the plate and sent it out to the dining room. He waited. The sound of cheering guests floated into the kitchen. She said yes.

In 2013, after almost two and a half decades, the time had come yet again for the Toths to begin a new chapter: retirement. But Café Atlantic would persist in more than just the memories of its loyal customers. In 2006, Ruth released Café Atlantic Cook Book, a compilation of some of the restaurant’s most prized recipes. After the book sold out, she released a second edition in 2015, adding new recipes from the last seven years that the restaurant was open. That, too, has sold out. Talks of a third printing are underway.

• • •

When clamming, there is joy in the pursuit and reward in the discovery. As the bottom of the basket turns from mesh into a mass of gray-striated shells, tomorrow’s dinner takes shape.

“Clamming was and is just one of the activities of summer. It’s a recreation that we enjoy and can share with others. It’s like a party to us,” Ruth says. “You don’t really have to think about clamming. It’s a physical thing. All ages can do it. The little kids can come, the old folks. My mother was still clamming in her 90s.”

The Toths clam regularly when family and friends are on the island, and they take out former customers who return to Ocracoke every summer. When notable chefs visit the island for the Fig Festival, a trip to the shoals with Bob and Ruth is often part of their itinerary.

A peaceful day spent on Pamlico Sound is its own kind of reward. Still, the best is yet to come: The fuller the clam basket, the more bountiful the feast. photograph by Baxter Miller

With the daily harvest limit nearly reached, the Toths put down their rakes and stow their baskets on a shoal. When they return home, they’ll grade the clams into three sizes. They’ll leave them in buckets of sound water along the shoreline, where the clams will purge sand overnight. But for now, it’s time to soak. “After a hot, sweaty day clamming, it’s nice to take a soak. To just sit and relax,” Ruth says. “The older I get, the more soaking and less clamming I do.”

On the way home, the sun slumps lower, casting a soft gold light across the rippling water. A gentle breeze blows out of the southeast. Ruth and Bob wave to a group of sun-kissed kids playing along the shore under the live oaks of Springer’s Point. As they approach their dock, the Swan Quarter ferry rounds the edge of the creek, its foghorn calling out before heading west to the mainland.

Eason’s two boys, ages 5 and 3, run barefoot and shirtless down the dock to greet their great-aunt and -uncle. Eason Jr. peers into a basket and plucks out a clam as large as his hand. Ruth pats him on the back, looking on proudly: A love of clams starts early in this family.

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This story was published on Jun 24, 2024

Ryan Stancil

Stancil is a writer and photographer based in New Bern.