Are Clams and Oysters On the Half Shell Still Alive When We Eat Them?

You’re on vacation at the shore, right? Seafood restaurants abound.

Many have raw bars, at which hordes of heedless hedonists are slurping hundreds of luckless mollusks that have been forcibly demoted from bivalve to univalve status. It’s only natural to be squeamish about chomping on a creature so recently relieved of its shielding shells and, gentle soul that you are, you can’t help but wonder if they’re still alive.

To settle this question once and for all, let me make this definitive statement: Freshly shucked clams and oysters are indeed sort of, kind of, more or less alive, one might say, in a manner of speaking. So if you’re one of those people who believe that plants feel pain when you prune them, you may want to skip the rest of this answer.

Consider the lowly clam. He spends his days buried in sand or mud, huddling within his shells, sucking in water through one of his two tubes (siphons), filtering out the yummies (plankton and algae), and spurting the waste water out through the other tube.

And, of course, on occasion he reproduces. (Yes, there are boy clams and girl clams.)

But that’s just about all he ever does. And by the time he reaches a restaurant, shells tightly clamped against the indignity of being yanked into the atmosphere, he isn’t even doing that much. He has no organs of sight or hearing and unquestionably feels neither pleasure nor pain, especially when numbed by being kept on ice. You call that living?

So much for biology. Now for the physics: How do you get the damn things open without killing yourself?