Joe the Clam Eater

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of January, 1948

Not conquering perhaps, but a hero just the same, Joseph H. Silva returned this week to his home in Edgartown. He went west as the Vineyard’s champion clam-eater, seeking a prize as the nation’s capacity consumer. Mr. Silva has won local fame for his capacity for steamed clams, boiled clams, fried clams and just clams.

Joe missed this title by four clams. He downed 127, while his opponent, a fellow Joe knew only as Watson, gulped 131 in the ten minutes of the contest.

Although Joe has no apologies for his performance, he was shocked and disappointed to find that the “clams” were steamed quahaugs. In addition to this heresy, they were tough, not tender and sweet like ours and with thick shells which gave him trouble in opening them.

The contest was held in a combination fish market and restaurant. The place, Joe said, was packed solid. Two pans were brought before each man, one full of steamed clams, the other empty, in which the shells were to be thrown. The number of castaway shells which had accumulated in the empty pans at the end of ten minutes indicated to the judges the winner of the contest.

At the eight-minute mark, Joe said he was forty-seven clams behind Watson, but he put on a two-minute flurry, which almost brought him even. If the contest had gone on another two minutes, Joe thought he could have won. For this amazing sprint Joe can credit not the capacity of his stomach, but the stretchability of his jaws. For the last two minutes, during which the glory of Edgartown was at stake, Joe didn’t gulp, chew or swallow. He closed his gullet and stuffed the slippery bivalves in his cheeks, from tonsils to the tip of his tongue. He looked like a cow with a double dose of lumpjaw. “If someone had stuck a pin in me, I would have popped,” he said.

When the ten minute gong had sounded, the count disclosed that Joe had lost by four clams, but Joe pointed out four empty shells on the floor. In his haste, he had thrown them beyond the rim of the official pan. If they could have been counted, the score would have been even, but the judges disqualified those clams.

Joe said that he felt fine after the contest and challenged Watson to a meal. When the time arrived for them to go, the champion had disappeared, and Joe sat down to fillet of sole alone. Later he was tendered a banquet at the Seattle Press Club, and was shown the sights of the city. Joe was impressed with the wonderful welcome. He was overwhelmed by the sight of Mount Rainier. When they asked him what impressed him the most, Joe replied that it was the green grass and the warm temperature which reminded him of the Vineyard in July. Joe told the people out there of the glories of the Island, emphasizing the homes and beaches, the fishing and the bass derby. The Pacific sportsmen, Joe said, really pricked up their ears at the bass derby, and when Joe told them how it worked, and of the prizes, a good many of them promised to come here on vacations in the fall.

Joe hopes for nothing so much as a return bout with the present champion, this time on his own terms. Joe wants to have Watson come east to consume littlenecks, served raw, in a contest twenty minutes long. Joe barely gets started in the first ten minutes. The clams will be eaten as the contestants open them, and Joe also hopes that next trial will be a foursome, with two men on each side.

Joe made the trip both ways by plane. The contest was held the day he landed, about two hours after he arrived at the Seattle Airport. For breakfast that morning Joe had warmed up on four eggs, four strips of bacon, three slices of bread and two cups of coffee. Although this meal was consumed two hours before the contest, Joe considered it only an appetizer. After the contest, Joe wanted a real meal. While posing for photographers at the Hotel Somerset in Boston, before leaving for the coast, Joe swallowed 140 littlenecks before he realized what had happened. When this was made known to him, Joe asked the press to keep it quiet as he did not want to alarm his opponent unnecessarily.

Joe’s appearance on the We the People broadcast was postponed, a fortunate circumstance all round considering the earlier conflict with three town meetings. If held as originally planned, his Vineyard audience would have been small.

The latest information from the west coast was that Watson had expressed extreme disinterest in any contest involving raw littlenecks.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner