NORMALLY, EVEN in these days of high real estate prices, there is limited demand for land that lies under sea water. There's really not a great deal you can do with it, at least until the undersea condo becomes popular. Why then would Ivar Haglund, a canny Scandinavian who has been serving Seattle sea food from a place on Pier 54 (called Ivor's) for more than 40 years, go out and acquire three large tracts of sea bottom?
Because to a clam impresario, the sea bottom is as beautiful as a big cornfield to an Iowa farmer. If you want clams, lots of 'em -- and Haglund does -- the bottom of the brine is where they are going to grow. He has 400 acres down there, and they contain 11,500,000 pounds of clams, according to the fishing experts. Haglund has had his own harvesting boat built, called the Keep Calm. (Keep Calm is a sort of recurring theme in Haglund's operation. You encounter it on a sign just inside the door where he informs you that he doesn't accept credit cards. Actually, his prices are so low they should not be necessary.)
Puget Sound is calm country to equal Cape Cod and Long Island, the Eastern bastions of calm appreciation. An ancient piece of Pacific Northwest folklore, which Haglund prints on his placemats, tells the story of a weary prospector who looked for gold all over the West without making a strike, gave up and headed for Puget Sound.
"Arriving flat broke in midwinter/I found it enveloped in fog/and covered all over with timber/thick as the hair of a dog." After two years of tree chopping the old boy still didn't have a clear patch to grow anything, so he took up beachcombing. In those days, it was a perfectly sensible way to survive. As they put it, "When the tide is out, the table is set." So the older settler ends: "No longer the slave of ambition/I laugh at the world and its shams/As I think of my happy condition/surrounded by acres of clams." aAny New Englander would appreciate that.
One of the things I am sure I learned at Harvard was how to eat clam chowder -- the Boston type of course -- a white soup with diced potatoes. For a really proper Bostonian, the Long Island variety of chowder with tomatoes in it is the work of Satan. Anyone who puts tomatoes in chowder is immediately suspect.
You can settle into a table by the window at Haglund's and watch the ferries arrive and depart at the next pier. It's a pleasant place, although not regarded as a gourmet haven by the locals, just as San Francisco people take a reserved view of the places on their Fisherman's Wharf. For me, the marvelous thing was four different kinds of clam soup on the menu. I ordered all of them. The waitress, an understanding type who obviously had seen customers go bonkers this way before, simply asked in what order I wanted them served.
I started with a mixture called Ivar's Ever-Rejuvinatin' Clam Nectar made from steaming Port Townsend, Little Neck, butter and morse clams. A touch of lemon helps, but without it, this is the finest clam broth I can recall drinking. It's just marvelous. You are sure that if you can keep a supply of it, you will live to be 102.
Second came Haglund's newest soup, cream-corn clam chowder. It is good, very creamy, not very clamish and full of corn. I found it a little flat-tasting after a few spoonfulls -- a dash of pepper helps a good deal -- but it is hearty soup that Bostonians would probably accept without a mutter.
Much more to my taste was clam bisque, which arrived third. It is made primarily from minced razor clams, and they are as sweet and tender as aquatic chicken. This is a thick cream soup. Again, I would like to fuss a trifle with the seasonings, but it was still sensational.
Finally, I was served Haglund's famed Puget Sound chowder. Yes, it has tomatoes in it, but on a creamy base. The formula is distinctively Pacific Northwest, and I could see the locals around me plunging into the colossal-size bowl ($2.50), which seemed to hold well over a pint of the stuff. cI think it's too bland. The clams seem to be muffled by the starch from the potatoes and the cream base, and the flavor needs brightening. I am not going to be adamant about the tomatoes; after all, I'm from Ohio, not Massachusettes, but I wish they contributed more to the taste.
If you don't go for clams, there is a concoction called Viking soup, made from salmon, shrimp and halibut that sounded good but I never got to taste. I was too busy getting my share of those 11,500,000 pounds of Pacific treasure.