They say to “clam up” is to become silent, but for one lucky man, a clam caused him to shout in celebration.
Scott Overland, a husband and father-of-two who works in corporate communications in the Philadelphia area, was on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware with his wife and two children last week. On Aug. 9, while dining at a local seafood spot called Salt Air, he found something unexpected: a purple pearl in his clam appetizer.
“I was the one mostly eating the clams and towards the end of the dish, I just chomp down on something that felt kind of hard,” Scott Overland told TODAY Food. “I thought it was a shell or something like that, but then looked and it was this little purple thing.”
At first, Overland thought it was something that a chef had accidentally dropped in his dish because it was such a unique color that neither he nor his wife even knew could exist in the pearl world. Overland also said he didn’t really know that clams could make pearls, either, thinking (like most folks) that pearls are mostly an oyster’s milieu.
By the way: All mollusks can technically make pearls, but only some saltwater clams and freshwater mussels are used to commercially grow the kind of pearls you would see at the Oscars or on Harry Styles. These creatures include oysters, mussels and, yes, clams.
After ruling out buttons, beads and "those little dot candies that come on paper," Overland and his wife saw that the clamshell had a little indentation in it from where the pearl had grown.
“That’s when we sort of realized this was not something from the kitchen and probably something from the clam,” Overland said, adding that he and his wife both whipped out their phones and became Google pearl experts of sorts, researching all sorts of pearls and clams. “We found that this actually was something kind of rare and special, and saw a wide range of values, from $600 to even $16,000.”
According to local paper Delaware Online, the restaurant confirmed the clam in question was a northern quahog with a really fun scientific name: Mercenaria mercenaria. Grown by Cherrystone Aqua Farms in the Chesapeake Bay, this kind of clam produces non-nacreous, porcelain-like pearls (the non-iridescent kind) according to the Gemological Institute of America.
The prices of pearls are based on several quality factors according to the International Gem Society. The IGS adds, however, that natural pearls are exceptionally rare finds, particularly ones found in quahogs. Also rare are pearls that come in a non-white or cream color like gold, pink, blue, brown or purple.
Additionally, because of mechanized harvesting of quahogs for human consumption, almost all pearls that might exist in these clams are destroyed, which makes a quahog pearl even rarer. Only one in 5,000 of these puppies produces a pearl, with most found damaged or in poor quality because of all that processing.
Most quahog pearls in modern times are found by unsuspecting restaurant patrons like Overland. Even further, steaming a pearl or getting lemon juice and other acids on a pearl can damage it, so only a few survive all of this processing, cooking, shucking and more to a dinner plate unscathed. He really should buy a lottery ticket or two — that’s a lot of luck.
The dish the pearl came from, which appears on Salt Air’s menu as an appetizer costing only $14, included scampi sauce, Parmesan and bell pepper pico de gallo, a topping that almost cost the Overland family their hidden treasure.
“My wife is not a big fan of peppers, so we actually ordered it without that,” Overland said. “It came (with the pico) and my wife was deciding whether or not to send it back. She decided to keep it fortunately, otherwise, we would not have had this whole experience.”
If you’re wondering how the staff at Salt Air reacted to selling a $14 dish that was actually potentially worth thousands of dollars, Overland said they were good sports about it.
“As we were paying, I showed the waitress and she was really excited,” Overland said, adding that she took a few selfies with it herself and proudly announced the find to her co-workers. “As we were leaving, we heard her telling all the other servers, ‘My customer just found a pearl in his clam!’ She seemed really excited about it.”
As for whether or not Overland is going to hold on to his Barney-tinted treasure, he’s weighing his options, but he does have a loved one (or two) who would love to call the pearl their own.
“If it’s appraised at a certain value, it may be hard to justify keeping it, but I have a six-year-old daughter who I’m sure would love to have it,” Overland said, adding that he’s thinking of turning it into a sparkling gift for his wife as another option. “We might try to turn it into something so we can have a special family heirloom. That, or I have to keep eating clams and find a second one if I want to turn it into earrings.”