When Beattie Quintal was a child, her father taught her and her siblings how to shuck clams so they would never be without a job.

He probably never expected that his daughter would grow up to be the reigning Clam Shucking Champion at the Yarmouth Clam Festival — and in the professional category, no less.

Quintal, 54, has won the Maine State Clam Shucking Contest at the festival nine years in a row. Last year, she shucked a record 45 clams in two minutes.

“I don’t know that there’s any special technique,” said Quintal, who lives in Waldoboro. “It seems to me there’s one way to get them out of the shell. You put the knife in there and reel it around. It really is, I guess, a lot about speed, you know.

“Having to do it day in and day out, my sisters and I, we wanted to get it done as soon as possible so we could go play and have a kid’s life.”

Quintal will be defending her title again this weekend at the clam festival, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday.

The festival, which usually attracts more than 100,000 people over three days, is a Maine tradition that raises funds for Yarmouth’s nonprofit groups, schools and churches.

Admission is free, but patrons should bring money for fried clams, clam chowder, clam cakes, blueberry pancakes, lobster rolls, crabmeat rolls, lime rickeys and all of the other clamtastic food sold at the booths. (Oh yeah, you might want to save some of that cash for crafts as well.)

This year, there will not be a food-tasting event, which for the past couple of years was the only festival-sponsored activity that had a separate admission fee. Organizers decided to skip it this year because of the economy.

New to the festival will be free valet bicycle parking and storage service for those who would rather pedal their way to the fun (or pedal off the fried clams) instead of searching for a parking space.

Volunteers will staff a secure lot at 26 School St. (on the walkway between the carnival and the food circle) from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

This year’s festival celebrates champions, specifically Herbie, a 217-year-old champion American elm tree that lost its battle with Dutch Elm disease a few months ago, and Frank Knight, Herbie’s longtime caretaker. Knight will be the grand marshal of Friday’s Clam Festival Parade, which begins at 6 p.m. on Main Street.

The clam-shucking champions will be crowned at the contest starting at 11 a.m. Saturday under the Merrill Memorial Library lawn tent. Categories include professional, amateur, college and celebrity (think Shannon Moss of Portland TV station WMTW, not Taylor Swift).

Mark Hough of Yarmouth, who is in the construction business and will be opening a new sandwich shop in August called Huffy’s, volunteers at the festival and often signs up for the amateur clam-shucking division. He’s been a lobsterman and dug clams when he was a kid, “so I’m not totally inept at it, either.”

Hough’s best showing is eight clams per minute, which in the past has won him second or third place. He said a little bit of technique is necessary, but speed is key.

“Part of the necessary result is that you end up with a whole clam,” Hough said. “It has to be whole to be counted. If you butcher it and don’t have the belly with the neck, it doesn’t count.”

Quintal, the professional champion, grew up in a family of 14 and everyone was expected to chip in and shuck clams to make money. The family sold their clams to the Pine Grove Drive-In and the Cheechako in Damariscotta, and to the Helm in Rockport.

The last time Quintal shucked clams professionally she was in her early 20s, but she hasn’t lost her touch. Shucking clams, apparently, is kind of like riding a bicycle. You never forget how.

Quintal says the amateurs can shuck anywhere from three clams a minute to 13 a minute. She averages 22 to 23 per minute. Every year she tries to beat her personal best, but “I can’t seem to move beyond it, though. I don’t know why.”

Injuries are par for the course. Hough says that in the Clam Festival contests, it’s usually the celebrities who are “the ones that end up bloodied most of the time.”

“When I was doing this growing up, myself and my siblings, we had slits all the way down our thumb,” Quintal said. “When you’re doing it on a daily basis, you have mishaps. But the saltwater helps to heal it really fast.”

You’d think that someone who has shucked as many clams as Quintal has might like to eat some occasionally.

“I’m not real excited about them,” she said. “Maybe clams once in the summer, that’s it. But I can eat them raw. I don’t have a problem with that. I know that probably grosses you out. When you grow up with them, and you’re shucking them, it’s nothing to pop one in your mouth. But I don’t eat the bellies on clams, just the rest of it.

“I don’t do bellies.”

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]