TERRA CEIA — On a recent Sunday, when world attention was riveted on the Super Bowl in Dallas, Curtis D. Hemmel was occupied with the usual primal matters. The football game, the closeups of big-bosomed celebrities in the bleachers and the clever ads on his big-screen television meant nothing to him because of what was happening behind his house.
HE WAS WATCHING CLAMS HAVE SEX.
They were doing it in the big warehouse tucked in the mangroves in Manatee County. Clam foreplay, which apparently consists of lying amorously yet motionless on the bottom of a laboratory tray, had lasted for a while. Now the horny bivalves were ready for action. While clams of the fairer sex streamed eggs into the water, clam Casanovas let loose with sperm. Through his microscope Curtis D. Hemmel took voyeuristic pleasure in the sight.
Hemmel, 44, is Florida's clam king. The owner of the Bay Shellfish Co., he collects clams from murky water, studies clams in his lab, and manipulates light and water temperature so his clams will reproduce according to his own busy schedule. At his hatchery, the largest in the South, he annually produces about 300 million baby clams for restoration, research and food. Clam farmers from coast to coast buy from him. His goal: at least a dozen clams in every Florida pot.
He wakes early and goes to bed late. In a recent week he devoted 77 waking hours to his clams. He actually toted up clam time when wife Pam asked for help with a household chore. "I can't,'' he told her desperately. "I have to get back to my clams.'' Then he walked out the door toward the lab and his babies.
The clam king is also a clam geek; some people wonder if he speaks the clam language. But what sounds like bivalve baby talk, Mercenaria mercenaria, turns out to be Latin for the genus and species for the variety he raises, the northern hard clam. He can tell you what to feed a northern hard clam, when to harvest a northern hard clam and how to pry open a northern hard clam. He can tell you how to eat it, too.
"I hope I don't bore you," he says.
He is part of Florida's $52 million clam industry, supplying most of Florida's commercial clam farmers with the seedlings they plant in hidden seabeds. Still, we're talking about commercial fishing, which means nobody usually gets rich.
But he's trying. He'll sell you a million clams for $3,000. The caveat: They're smaller than a tiddlywink. You have to plant them. You have to love and protect them. You have to pray they'll grow to edible size. Some won't survive the big bad bowl of bouillabaisse known as the sea.
But if you eat a fresh clam in Florida, chances are Hemmel oversaw the moment of conception. He mixed the eggs with sperm, watched over the microscopic offspring for months, fretted about their growth spurts as if they were his own two children and then kicked them out of the clam nest, knowing that sooner or later somebody might steam them and serve them over linguine in olive oil, garlic and white wine.
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A cherrystone clam of a man, he is about half a dozen inches short of 6 feet. Sometimes he is so busy with clams he forgets to shave. His daily uniform includes a ball cap, T-shirt and muddy barnacles that turn out to be his boots.
He dreams of clams. Awake, his cell phone never stops ringing with clam business. Maybe it's a clam farmer asking about a delivery. Or a university professor wondering if he might grow clams, oysters or scallops for a science project. The phone rings at night and in the morning and when his hands are dripping and smelling of clams.
Things used to be simpler. About 15,000 years ago, when the first people ambled into Florida, they waded into the water to pick up clams, crack them open and slurp them down. When the clam supply dwindled in one place, they satisfied hunger pangs down the coast. The clam beds went on forever.
In the 21st century, it's different. About 19 million of us live in Florida, joined by another 40 million tourists who visit for the golf, theme parks and maybe strips of fried clams. In some places, the polluted water is plain unfriendly to growing clams. These days it is easy to arrange a tee time but next to impossible to find a juicy, just-out-of-the-water clam. For a clam geek, it's all about taking a scientific approach and helping clams live up to their potential as dinner.
"Things that amaze me about bivalves'' was the topic of a recent e-mail from the Poindexter side of the clam king. "1. Strong nutritional profile. 2. They are very selective feeders eating almost exclusively on microalgae. 3. We do not need to use artificial feeds, antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, herbicides or genetically engineered products to grow clams.''
The clam king was born in clam-free Iowa, though his parents made up for their mistake by moving to east-central Florida, where clams grew defiantly on bayou bottoms. He took piano lessons as a boy, surfed and fished. Surfers, fishers and musicians usually face a life of poverty. He washed dishes at a restaurant and saved his money for tuition at Florida State University. He majored in business.
"One day on vacation I was driving across the Indian River on the causeway and I saw this guy diving off the seawall with some kind of bag. I pulled off the road and waited for him to come out. 'What are you doing?' I asked. 'Clamming,' the guy said. 'Tell me about it,' I said. The guy said, 'I sell my clams.' I asked, 'Do you make any money?'
"He was making more money in an hour than I was in a week at the restaurant. I paid my way through the rest of college by harvesting clams."
He graduated with a business degree, bought a gray suit, shaved regularly, took a respectable office job. "But I kept thinking there had to be a more interesting way to make a living."
One day he enrolled in an aquaculture program. The instructor was a guy named LeRoy Cresswell, who turned out to be his Yoda. Curtis D. Hemmel, inspired, left the classroom thinking he might change the clam world.
"I lived in a marina. I learned everything I could learn about clams, the clam industry, farming clams, but especially how to build a clam hatchery. I built one. Over the next five years I worked on losing all my money raising clams. I'm a cocky guy and I was forced to become a much more modest person."
Clams, apparently, will do that to a guy. They're sensitive to cold, to heat, to too much salinity or too little. But mostly they want to eat.
He heard about an Englishman, John Bayes, whom he calls ''the Einstein of clams." "I went to England. He took me under his wing. I learned how oyster and clam hatcheries function globally. He told me the secret of commercial clamming is being able to grow enough algae to feed the clams you are producing. If you can grow the right kind of algae — that's the beginning of the food chain — you can grow bivalves."
Curtis D. Hemmel's clam hatchery is something like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. There are lights and wires and microscopes. There are burping pipes and brown stuff swishing through vats and tanks. The stuff gurgling through the pipes, part plant and part animal, too tiny to see, is yummy algae. The algae flow through the pipes into trays and vats dotted with specks of pepper. They're baby clams.
"Eat!'' Hemmel orders his clams. "Eat that algae.'' When they're about the size of an M&M he sells them to clam farmers for planting in the sea. "It's not easy for the clams,'' he says sympathetically. "Nature is always against them.'' It's hard for a clam king, too. Last year's oil spill in the gulf kept him awake nights. "The oil never got near us,'' he says, "but perception is everything. People stopped eating seafood, especially shellfish, because it was from Florida. I didn't sell a clam for three months.''
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A few years ago, Hemmel added "clam farmer" to his clam-hatchery-wizard resume. He since has planted more than 4 million clams in places he will never advertise. He revs the 200-horse engine powering his 27-foot skiff, roars away from the dock on Tillet Bay and heads for his secret clam beds. He winds through mangrove islands and zips under a bridge, bounces across the whitecaps and cuts off the engine somewhere in southern Tampa Bay.
Another boat is anchored on the secret clam bed. Bubbles rise next to the boat. Under the bubbles, at the end of an air hose, is an employee, a diver. The diver is tying ropes to bags of clams lying on the bottom. The boat has a winch; Curtis D. Hemmel touches a button. The winch hauls to the deck a bag containing about 1,000 clams. Hemmel slits it open. Clams tumble out like gold coins.
An hour later he delivers them to one of his accounts, the Citrus Place, in Manatee County's Terra Ceia. He places his clams in a special cooler designed to keep them alive for at least a week. "You have to keep the temperature at exactly 43 degrees,'' he declares. "Any warmer and they won't live as long. Colder and the meat is tough. I have figured this out through trial and error.''
Of course he also saves clams for himself. Perhaps he will eat them steamed or in a chowder, joined by his wife and children who may learn a few new things about clams as they sup.
He will spare a few for breeding purposes. He will walk them gently to the lab, lay them in a tray, manipulate lights and water temperature and, yes, perform his accustomed role as clam sex therapist.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.