The Tide is Out, the Table’s Set: Beach Foraging

By , April 1, 2010

Yesterday morning, after breakfast and hot cups of coffee and tea, we pulled on our boots, bundled up against the steady southerly, and headed for the beach. The low tide is -3.6 feet; time to beach comb.

The Tlingits have a saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set.” They’ve lived here for more than 10,000 years, so they ought to know. In these northern latitudes, there’s very little on the beach that’s not edible.

We don’t eat all that’s available. Our palates are still very Westernized, so not everything appeals, nor does it all grow to a size that makes cleaning and preparing practical. The risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) prevents us from eating some traditional delicacies, like mussels and clams.

On this day, we hunted sea stars. We headed for the south end of our beach, where larger mussels grow, and sea urchins congregate, both of which draw sea stars. We select the biggest we can find, leaving the rest to grow. We don’t eat sea stars directly. We collect them to bury in the garden; potatoes benefit particularly from sea star fertilizer.

We also gathered seaweed. It’s early in the season, but spring seaweed is most tender and flavorful. We only gathered a handful of dulce to add to lunch. Later, there will be sea lettuce, nori, and ribbon kelp, among many others. When it’s more lush, we might gather and dry it to use throughout the year. Strategically, I try to focus seaweed harvesting in front of the cliff off which I fish, to reduce, if only slightly, the amount of weed on which to snag lures. As we scan the beach, our search images include signs of the handful of lures we lose each year.

On other days, we might gather limpets to sautée in butter and garlic like escargot, or make faux clam chowder. Soon the seaweed might become covered with herring eggs. Chitons, also called gumboots, taste like their cousin, abalone. We watch for small local abalone as well, but their niche is in deeper water. We are always on the lookout for octopus, although we’ve never found any here. Shrimpers sometimes pull them up in their pots.

We also watch for curiosities, such as a copper letter opener from an accounting office back East that went out of business in the early 1900s, or marine hardware. We also remove any batteries we find (and, sadly, we find a lot!) to get them off the beach.

After about an hour, we’ve found enough sea stars and seaweed to satisfy for one day. Our hands are getting cold inside our vinyl fishing gloves. It’s time to climb the beach until the next table-setting tide.

2 Responses to “The Tide is Out, the Table’s Set: Beach Foraging”

  1. Robert Wynne says:

    This kind of thing has interested me for many years, ever since my Anthropology teacher told us how, during the Depression he collected and sold Pismo Beach clams on order to help out his family. I’ve also enjoyed watching Coquinas burrow in the sand at low tide, thinking about the broth that could come from them, and the mullet I could net in the tidal streams. Thanks for this article!

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Thanks, Robert, glad you liked the article! The phrase: “the world is your oyster” always strikes me as appropriate to beach foraging, in that one can find good eats everywhere, if only one is brave enough to put the ugly things in one’s mouth!

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