In an earlier post I wrote about Crisflield's seafood restaurant in Silver Spring, MD. Having eaten there countless times as a child, many of my early memories remain especially intact when it comes to chowder and the likes. I had no problem, from an early age, eating steamed clams, baked shrimp stuffed with crab meat, and even steamed whole crabs.
During a recent visit, my order of steamed cherrystones came on a large plate, and there were about 16 per the dozen ordered -- not a bad deal. Perhaps my memory fails me a bit, but I'm pretty sure those clams used to come in a big pot, with many more clams per order.
My father still loves all this stuff, and I do too. One of my great joys in life is sharing a plate of oysters or clams with him. He always ate all sorts of seafood: long before fried calamari became a requisite appetizer on the menu of nearly every restaurant, he was ordering pasta with fresh squid.
But it was the "piss clams," as he called them, that held the most shock value for me. I thought these oblong cherrystone sized clams -- each with an unattractive worm-like protrusion -- were downright gross looking. In fact, I remember he even told me that I probably wouldn't like them. I heeded his warning and stuck with the regular steamers.
Therefore it comes as little surprise to me that my daughter, who is nearly 5, is reluctant to taste shellfish. Who could blame her? Lobster and crabs, even tiny little cockle clams -- these things are all weird looking. I often wonder about the first humans who dared to eat a lobster. How did they figure out what to do? How did they know that this feisty armored life form contained edible matter? And the miracle of clams -- how these shelled sand diggers could taste so delicious -- don't get me started. Perhaps my daughter just needs time, or maybe she'll never come around. She'll be okay either way. :-)
Fast forward through many years -- decades, in fact -- of incidental ingestion of relatively unchallenging clam dishes: linguine with clams, dim sum clams with black bean sauce, Doxsee "clam puffs" from the Union Square Greenmarket, clams on the half-shell, hard-shell steamers, fried clam strips -- I even loved the old HoJo's box formerly sold in the freezer section at the supermarket. In '92, an Italian friend taught me how to make linguine and clams -- so enlightening!
And then in August 2007, an article in the New York Times sent my mind reeling on a three year obsession over some briny juicy "whole belly" clams from New England -- clams that closely resembled the piss clams my father had so earnestly warned me against. At least a couple times during those years I even mapped the drive on Google, just to see if Ipswich made sense as a day trip.
The author of the article had visited several old shacks -- some of which dated back to the early 20th century -- in an effort to recapture the clam days of his youth. In fact, his proclamation that "fried clams are to New England what barbecue is to the South" caused in me a rather decent amount of insecurity: barbecue is easy eating compared to clams. Would I even like these clams? Would they taste too strong? Would there be too much sand or mud? Would I see that protrusion (which is called a siphon, by the way) and chicken out?
My obsession culminated on a recent trip to Maine. On the way up, our family stopped in at Woodman's of Essex -- the oldest of the clam houses. Woodman's opened in 1914 and claims to have invented the fried clam in 1914. The clam they use is the local Ipswich clam, a variety of soft shell clam celebrated for its mildly sweet flavor and juicy bite. The description in the Times article and elsewhere gave me some confidence. I thought I could eat these clams -- even if they were the same as the ones my father had warned me against.
Before deciding upon Woodman's, I also considered a place called the Clam Box. (The building is actually shaped like a clam box!) Here they offer a choice of either small belly or big belly clams. Worried that I might feel pressured -- in my bid to conquer a more challenging bivalve -- into ordering the big bellies, I instead opted for Woodman's, where small belly clams are the only option. And I was not disappointed! Served on a paper plate with french fries and onion rings, the fried clams of this monochromatic combo were absolutely top notch. Some I ate with lemon juice, some with a quick dip of tartar sauce, and some straight up plain: they were all great! The below photo shows one of Woodman's fried clams. As a Lipitor® addict with high cholesterol in the genes, I try not to eat fried food too often. So over the next few days in Maine, I ate plenty of crab, lobster, and mussels -- none fried. On the return trip, I began to think about what I could bring home for my final seafood fling.
Armed with a medium sized cooler and a couple of blue ice packs, I entered Sanders Fish Market in Portsmouth, NH, and scoped out the choices. And there they were: soft shell clams, in this case sourced from Maine. I bought 2½ pounds for about $14. My plan was to exorcize the piss clam demons and eat these guys steamed, siphons and all.
Six hours later I arrived back in New York and nearly all were still alive (I discarded those that didn't move when touched). A quick bit of internet research led me to an informative and beautifully illustrated website, timeinthekitchen.com, which bolstered my courage and provided me with the info needed to prepare these at home.
Because neither my wife nor my daughter eat clams -- and because the soft shells are markedly less attractive than other varieties I've brought into the home -- I warned them not to look at my dinner. Plus, eating these clams involves removing an inedible outer membrane that surrounds the siphon. I confess: it even grossed me out. But retreat? I could not.
It turns out that the belly provides the juiciness and the siphon the chewiness. Taken together, along with some lemon juice, melted butter -- or both -- the experience became a thoroughly enjoyable rite of passage into the grown-up world of piss clam cuisine.
Next stop, Crisfield's with my dad - to see what kinds of clams they have on the menu.
Mouse-over the photo of my uncooked clams (at the top of this story) to see one after it was steamed open.