Written By: Lucretta Bingham
MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE OF OUR COLD winters, but I've found that we New Englanders tend to greet summer with a little more fervor than people from other parts of the country. When those first blazing days of June arrive, we practically throw ourselves at the beach, eager to have hot sand under our feet, to feel the scorch of the sun on our shoulders, and to savor the briny sweet taste of the season's first tender fried clams. For me, eating clams by the sea is the purest expression of summer. And just as sacred as the food itself are the unpretentious institutions that serve it: clam shacks.
These convivial joints specializing in raw, fried, and stuffed clams, clam fritters, chowders, and, often, other classic summer fare like steamed whole lobster with fresh corn on the cob take advantage of the vast abundance of seafood especially hardshell and softshell clams that thrives along the North American East Coast. Some of these places are bona fide shacks: wood-frame buildings that sit astride a rickety dock or rise from a reedy shoreline. Others are multistoried shorefront restaurants with full bars and ample seating.
Worthy clam shacks that use fresh shellfish from local waters and serve their own, homemade chowders and clam cakes, or fritters, still exist in a number of New England states, but with all due deference to Connecticut, where I was born, on a recent clam shack quest I encountered the greatest concentration of them next door in Rhode Island. It was in the tiny Ocean State, specifically around the beaches and docks of Narragansett, that I rediscovered the types of clam shacks I remembered from my childhood - and, in fact, found a few that were better.
RHODE ISLANDERS HAVE long been fans of casual seaside dining. By the late 1800s, family gatherings and political functions frequently centered around the clambake, a ritual derived from the local American Indian tradition of cooking shellfish over hot stones on the beach. But Rhode Islanders, apparently, weren't content to limit the pleasure of eating lots of shellfish to special occasions; they pined for an opportunity to enjoy this feast whenever they felt like it, as Horace G. Belcher put it in The New England Yankee Cook Book, published in 1939. And so, in the latter part of the last century and in the earlier years of the present, the shores of upper Narragansett Bay were dotted with clambake resorts where bakes were served daily. By the 1920s, these clambake pavilions had begun to give way to take-out establishments - perfectly suited to America's nascent automobile culture - as well as inexpensive, seafood-focused family restaurants.
Over the years, an influx of Italian and Portuguese immigrants to Rhode Island, combined with the state's strong sense of regional identity, has wrought a distinctly local cuisine that includes, among other dishes, clear and tomato-tinged chowders; stuffed, baked clams (known as stuffies) made with lingui a or chouri'o sausage; garlicky conch salad; clam cakes; fried calamari tossed with hot peppers; and a special kind of fried dough balls akin to the Italian zeppola.
All these local marvels were on my must-eat list as I embarked on an exploration of the Narragansett Bay shore, but before I tried anything else, I yearned to satisfy a craving for the premier clam shack specialty, fried clams. Accordingly, my first stop was Champlin's Seafood Deck, a flag-festooned, two story restaurant and fish market that allegedly serves some of the best fried clams in the state. I arrived midmorning, before the fryers had started up, so I perused the retail fish market on the ground floor while I waited. There I found Annie Senerchia, a sweatshirt-clad woman in her 40s who was working the fish counter. I noticed that, in addition to a huge variety of fish and prepared foods like conch salad and calamari salad, they sold quahogs- as Rhode Islanders call the larger, hardshell clams most commonly used for chowder - both whole and already chopped. Even the old-timers buy them chopped. They don't want to shuck, Senerchia said.
I knew firsthand how tough it is to separate those sturdy bivalves from their shells, I told her, having spent a foggy and cold summer on Martha's Vineyard as a teenager learning how to gather quahogs. Though many New Englanders collect clams by scouring the tidal flats using long-handled rakes, I wanted to find the big specimens that burrowed in deeper water. Wearing scuba gear, I would skim silently along the bottom of Vineyard Haven Harbor, trailing a mesh bag, looking for the telltale holes in the muddy sand.
Bob Mitchell Jr., the 35-year-old general manager of Champlin's, explained that the quahogs sold there, as well as the smaller littlenecks and steamers, are raked from salt ponds near Rhode Island's south shore or from Narragansett Bay and unloaded by boatmen directly into the restaurant's dock front warehouse.
At 11 o'clock I headed upstairs to the kitchen, where I met Amanda Maybeck, the restaurant manager, who was readying the day's first batch of clams. We use small to medium-size steamers, said Maybeck, an athletic-looking 45-year-old, as she rolled the plump, fresh-shucked mollusks in a specially concocted breading mixture and dropped them into the hot oil. (Champlin's, like most respectable clam shacks, uses whole clams, including the tender bellies, though it also sells clam strips, made from the chewier siphon, or neck, of ocean quahogs.) The clams sizzled furiously before the frying basket was removed and the clams were left to drain. Maybeck heaped a dozen onto a plate garnished with a lemon wedge and pointed me to a table. As gulls shrieked overhead in the midday sun, I popped a clam into my mouth and bit into the soft flesh. I was in heaven, and hungry for more.
I RESISTED THE TEMPTATION to down another dozen clams and decided to move on. My quarry was a local specialty called clam cakes, deep-fried clam fritters and my destination was a huge restaurant called George's of Galilee, which is celebrated for its version of the dish. Every one of the 100-plus tables and five dining rooms at George's seemed to be filled when I arrived. It's hard to imagine that the place started out, in 1948, as a humble coffee shop that the original owner, a bakery-truck driver named Norman Durfee, bought from a guy named George Partelow. Norman's grandson, Kevin Durfee, now owns the place, I was told, and the clam cakes he sells are tasty and satisfying, but, alas, I found them to be heavier than I'd hoped.
Seeking perfection, I left George's and asked a man stepping into a pickup truck parked across the street where I could find the best clam cakes. Go five miles up the road, he told me. A place right next to the water called Starboard's. Puts the others to shame! The Starboard Galley, as the place is officially known, has been around only since 1996 (and, since my visit, has moved to a new location, in Charlestown) - a fact I found surprising given the unequivocal vote of confidence the place got from a guy who looked to be a dyed-in-the-wool Rhode Islander and, as such, probably wary of upstart establishments.
The restaurant couldn't look more different from George's: the Starboard Galley was a cinder-block building with a tiny kitchen, a single take-out window, and a four-table dining room. My suspicions were further aroused by a sign above the entrance that read, The Best Clamcakes and Chowda in Narragansett. (I recently learned that it has since been upgraded to read, The Best Clamcakes and Chowda Anywhere.)
I ordered clam cakes and red chowder - Rhode Island's version of Manhattan-style clam chowder. The peppery tomato-based broth chock-full of chopped quahogs and white potatoes was good enough to put me off heavy, cream-based chowder forever. But it was the clam cakes that really impressed me: they were as light as, well, cake and generously bejeweled with bits of tender clam. All suspicions were firmly laid to rest.
At that point I'd eaten enough to get me through to breakfast, but one more stop awaited me: Aunt Carrie's, south of Narragansett's town center, in Point Judith. It's here that clam cakes were allegedly invented, and I've heard many Rhode Islanders also speak reverently about the fried clams to be had at this shorefront restaurant, one of the oldest clam shacks in New England.
Aunt Carrie's could be called the grande dame of Rhode Island clam shacks. The wood floors of the dining room shine, and lace curtains billow elegantly in the afternoon breeze. The owner, Elsie Foy, married the grandson of Carrie and Ulysses Cooper, who founded the restaurant in 1920 on the site where the couple's family used to camp in the summertime.
Manager Ray VanHine started as a dishwasher at Aunt Carrie's 21 years ago and is now among the elite few who know the original clam cake batter recipe. It's the holy grail! he said. Most of the other restaurants would love to know how we do it. He took me into the kitchen and showed me the three ancient looking frying vats - known as Fryolators they use to make the fritters. During the summer all three Fryolators are going all day long, VanHine said, frying about 120 clam cakes at a time.
I took a plate of clam cakes and a dozen fried clam bellies out to the restaurant's enclosed porch and found a seat next to two sunburned teenage girls in flip-flops. The fried clams - juicy and just the right size - were as good as any I'd ever had, and the clam cakes were exquisite, with browned bits of quahog, crisp as bacon, protruding from the golden crust. I glanced at the girls next to me, who were sharing a plate of the fritters. They went about their business silently, except when the one closer to me murmured, with her mouth full, Real good. I couldn't have said it better.
RHODE ISLAND CLAM SHACK LINGO
BOAT STEERER: Another name for a clam cake
CABINET: A milk shake
CLAM CAKE: A flour or cornmeal fritter made with chopped clams
CLEAR CHOWDER: Clam chowder in a clear seafood broth
CHOURI'O: A dry-cured Portuguese-style sausage often used in stuffies
COFFEE MILK: Ice-cold milk mixed with coffee syrup; Rhode Island's unofficial state drink
DOUGHBOY: A deep-fried dough cake sprinkled with sugar; some locals dip theirs in chowder
JOHNNYCAKE: A white-cornmeal skillet cake sometimes served alongside chowder
LINGUI A: Another, milder dry cured Portuguese-style sausage
QUAHOG: A hardshell clam; also, specifically, a large clam used for chowder
QUAHOGGER: One who digs for clams
RED CHOWDER: Clam chowder in a tomato-based broth
SINKER: Another name for a clam cake
STUFFIES: Baked, stuffed quahogs