Scott Overland was dining out at Salt Air Kitchen and Bar in Rehoboth Beach, Del. on a family vacation when he discovered a rare treasure on his dinner plate.
"We ordered the clams appetizer, which came with a scampi sauce and a bell pepper pico [de gallo]," Overland tells Yahoo Life. "My wife is not a huge fan of bell peppers, so we asked for it without the pico, but they forgot the request and put it on," says Overland, who almost sent the dish back.
It's a good thing he didn't, because he'd never have discovered a rare purple pearl inside one of the clams.
"[It's] a good lesson to not be a pain at restaurants," says Overland of the dish, which was not part of the restaurant's raw bar menu, but cooked. "That's also good," he says of the preparation, "because if we were just slurping down clams on the half shell, we may have swallowed the pearl."
As Overland was eating the clams, he bit down on something hard and thought it was a piece of shell. It wasn't. "When we looked at it, it was actually purple," says Overland, who initially thought it was something a chef had dropped in. "Like a bead or piece of candy," he says, "my wife said it looked like one of those dot candies you peel off of paper, because the back of it was flat and it was a very light shade of purple."
It was toward the end of enjoying the dish that Overland made the unexpected discovery. "We did not keep eating the clams," he recalls. "In fact at first, before we knew it was a pearl, we thought it may have been something that fell in from the kitchen, so we stopped eating and started to try and figure out what it was."
When they examined the shell again, and it had an indentation inside that looked like something had grown there, they realized they probably had something that came from inside the clam. "We whipped out our phones and started [searching for] what we could have, as neither of us knew clams could produce pearls; we thought they only came from oysters," says Overland. "We also had never seen a purple pearl before."
As it turns out, they learned clams do produce pearls ... and they can be purple in color. "We initially didn't tell anyone at the restaurant what we had found, as we wanted to be a bit more certain about what it was," says Overland.
At the end of the meal, they showed the pearl to their server. "She said we could absolutely keep it, but she wanted to take pictures of it on her phone," says Overland. "As we were leaving, we heard her telling other servers, 'My customer just found a pearl in his clam!' She had never seen anything like it before either."
Restaurant staff were thrilled that Overland's appetizer ended up being a dish worth a lot more than its price on the menu. "We were all surprised and happy for the guest — I personally cooked the clams on the given night and couldn't believe the pearl got by me," said Salt Air's executive chef, Pete Farley, of the dish, which contained clams from Cape Charles, Va. According to the chef, the dish is typically prepared with white wine and garlic and butter broth, then topped with an heirloom bell pepper relish and parmesan cheese.
The clams in the savory dish were beyond a doubt an unexpected treasure. "These clams are of the species Mercenaria mercenaria, commonly known as hard shell clams," says Lynn Arnold, director of seafood for restaurant food supplier Rastelli Foods Group. "These types of clams are both wild-caught and marine-raised all along the eastern seaboard from Florida through Long Island Sound."
Considering the number of clams harvested each year, which is in the millions, it's rare but not entirely uncommon to find a pearl. "I was once a partner in a clam-harvesting facility outside of Atlantic City and we would find them regularly; typically very small in size and predominantly white," says Arnold.
To find a large pearl, particularly purple in color, is indeed rare. "Odds are approximately one in more than two million," Arnold explains. "In February, an 8.8-millimeter white pearl was found in a clam shucked at the Lobster House in Cape May, N.J. Its estimated value is in the thousands of dollars. The purple one found in Delaware could fetch just about as much."
Experts concur it's rare to find a natural pearl inside a mollusk. "The vast majority of today's pearls are cultured," says Leon Rbibo, president of online jewelry retailer the Pearl Source.
It doesn't mean they are any less natural or valuable, but it does mean producers can control the process and final product a bit more. "Wild mollusks that yield a natural pearl are rare and, because of this, not very sensible to produce at any scale from a commercial standpoint," explains Rbibo, adding that, even when a natural pearl is found — like in a clam or oyster on a restaurant dinner plate — they are generally of low quality because of their small size and inconsistent shape.
In this case, though, the pearl appears to be perfectly round and unique in color, which would make it an incredibly rare find. "Perhaps one in 10 million," Rbibo says. "This could have a pretty big impact on its value. If the pearl adheres to certain standards of size, luster and quality, it could be worth thousands if appraised correctly and sold at auction."
This is considerably more than the typical pearl found on a dinner plate. "When you hear stories of diners finding pearls in their seafood, what usually doesn't make it to press is the fact that those pearls are often worth a couple hundred bucks even in the best of circumstances," says Rbibo. "This particular diner, though, has found something much more special."
While stories of oddities and unusual things coming from the ocean's depths exist, it's rare to see such wonders. "Every so often we'll get excited when we see smaller fish inside a larger one's mouth, or the occasional harpoon spear lodged in a swordfish's tummy. One can dream about catching a blue or orange lobster, but we know there's a better chance of getting bit by a shark while eating a corndog on the Coney Island boardwalk," says Jody Meade, president of online seafood retailer Fulton Fish Market. "Congrats to this lucky fellow who was in the right place at the right time. It appears on this day, the world was this man's oyster."
Or, rather, clam.
But what will Overland do with his newfound bounty? "We haven't gotten it appraised yet, but we plan on doing that sometime in the next week or two," he shares. "We're still deciding what to do with it, but we're leaning towards keeping it as a cool family heirloom and something to remember the trip by."
Memorable, indeed. Overland is also considering turning his find into a piece of jewelry, but there's one drawback. "I am going to have to keep eating a lot of clams to find a second one if my wife wants earrings," he says.
Overland likens the experience to treasure-hunting. "I didn't even know you could go treasure-hunting in a bowl of clams, but you live and you learn," says Overland, adding he will certainly keep eating clams, but will probably be a bit more cautious before chowing down next time. "It is definitely worth an extra second to make sure I'm not biting into anything that could help put my kids through college."
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