“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Nowhere is this saying more true than in the field of archaeology. An old piece of junk that may have been tossed into a pile of trash hundreds or thousands of years ago, when unearthed in modern times, can suddenly become a valuable window to the past.

For example, centuries ago, before the days of landfills and recycling, discarded objects were often just chucked into what are now called ‘midden heaps.’ While some of these were relatively small, others contained generations and generations worth of trash—possibly representing thousands of years—and became veritable mounds, reaching 30 to 40 feet in height.

The majority of these trash mountains in California were around the Bay Area. While some deer, elk, bear, duck and other vertebrate remains were found in these, they were primarily composed of seashells. Mussels, both the Bay and the California (Mytilus edulis and M. californianus) made up large proportion of the mounds, and logically so. Even today, these bivalves are consumed by many people—and they are very easy to harvest.

But in some mounds, the major component was a clam species (Macoma nasuta) that is no longer considered to be very good eating. While under some circumstances, such a slight to its reputation would be considered enough to ‘put one’s nose out of joint,’ such is NOT the basis for this clam’s common name, Bent-nosed. Rather this appellation reflects the shape of its shells.

The Bent-nosed Clam is a fair-sized bivalve, reaching about three to four inches wide. It is a common inhabitant of shallow sandy, muddy or gravelly areas from the intertidal zone to over 150 feet deep, from Alaska to Baja. It has quite an affinity for quiet bays and harbors, and can tolerate water that is just too stagnant for other species. It lies buried a few inches below the sea floor, with its lower valve (shell) flat down. Other clams situate themselves so that their valves are perpendicular to the bottom and with their siphons protruding up between these valves so as to feed and respire. The Bent-nosed Clam, however, from its horizontal position, extends its two long siphons up from one side of its shells. To facilitate matters, those shells are bent upwards slightly on one side (perhaps not quite a ‘nose’ but close enough when it comes to clams).

With these siphons, the Bent-nosed Clam functions as a virtual vacuum cleaner. Those long flexible tubes suck up detritus and other organic material from all around its burrow. Of course, along with the rich nutrients comes mud and sand. So every so often, the Bent-nosed Clam will take a break from its sucking activity and reverse the flow through its siphons so as to rid itself of excess debris.

This accumulation is not just spewed out every which way into the water. Actually, as much as the Bent-nosed Clam can be considered to be a vacuum cleaner, it also functions as a trash compactor. When it disposes itself of its mud and sand, it forms neat little pellets. These are evident all around its burrow, forming its own midden heaps, so to speak. In a single year, just one Bent-nosed Clam can produce about one million of these pellets! And these pellets are cleverly large enough not to be easily redigested by the clam.

But despite the Bent-nosed Clam’s amazing ability to get the guck out of its gut, when harvested, it is likely to have some sand or mud inside. To the modern seafood consumer’s palate, this makes this species less desirable than others, which is one reason that it is no longer gathered to the extent it was in times past. The appearance of the Soft-shelled Clam (Mya arenaria) has also contributed to this change. This species was originally found in the Atlantic, along the coast of both North American and Europe, where for centuries it had been an important food source. After its introduction into the San Francisco Bay, where it was cultivated, it has spread northward to Alaska, although only southward to about Monterey Bay. Today, most people have no desire to deal with the grimy Bent-nosed Clam, when the easy to clean Soft-shelled one is available.

Thus, the Bent-nosed Clam has no reason to be slighted or have its ‘nose out of joint.’ Regardless, if some people may considered it to be a “trash species,” it actually now has the better end of the deal. Without even being eaten much anymore, it can be considered to be a living treasure. It will always retain the distinction as one of the most important components of California’s old shell midden heaps, a gritty reminder of the cuisine of days gone by. Truly, then ‘one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.’