The greatest fried food in the world—and I'm pretty serious about my fried foods—is available only in one small corner of the United States.
I remember a day on the Cape on the summer of my sixth year, when my sister and I spent the entire afternoon digging for soft shells in the surf, testing them against the state-issued sizing ring. Our dad had told us, "if it fits through the ring, it's too small and you gotta throw it back." You find steamers by walking around the soft sand at low tide, looking for the telltale siphons bubbling water up through the silt. We dug up and threw back clam after clam. It was only several hours later, when we hauled our pair of keepers back to the house that our dad clarified: if they don't fit through the fat way, then throw'm back. Turns out every single one of the ones we'd tossed back should have been in that bucket.
My sister and I scrambled back to the beach, wading into the incoming tide, desperately searching for the spots of black sand, churned up where the clams had dug back into the beach. We ended up with about a half dozen or so—hardly enough for an appetizer, let alone a meal—and resorted to ordering fried clams from the shack down the road. I wish I can say that I was clever enough for this to have been my plan all along, but I wasn't. What I can say is that once I had that box of fried clams in front of me, I didn't regret our error one bit.
The best fried clams come from roadside clam shacks that specialize in them. Most will offer fried scallops (decent when fresh), fried fish (usually great), and fried shrimp (those giant battered sea cockroaches can scurry off under the dark recesses of the sink where they belong), along with fries and onion rings (throw'em all together, add a couple tubs of tartar sauce, and you've got yourself a "fisherman's platter").
Most of the joints also have a giant kettle steamer they use for things like whole lobsters and steamers (soft shell clams), award winning clam chowder (all clam chowders seem to be "award winning"), maybe some stuffies (giant clams called quahogs, chopped, mixed with bread crumbs and Portuguese chouriço, then baked in the shell), and the odd clam fritter or two. But it's the fried clams that separate the seaside shacks from the seaside shames, the littlenecks from the quahogs.
The best fried clams I've ever had were at a small clam shack built on an old wooden pier on the tip of Hull, the South Shore peninsula that juts over into Quincy Bay. My dad and I had just spent the morning pulling in mackerel off of the Nahant cliffs in Broad Sound, which we dumped into the live bait well on his little Boston Whaler. We'd built up an appetite that needed to be sated before heading out to Stelwagen Banks in the hopes of tempting some stripers or tuna with our morning's catch.
We ordered a couple boxes of clams and onion rings and sat at a picnic table on the pier. The day was calm enough that the water in the harbor had a glassy, smooth shine to it—good news for me; I've been known to get seasick on the fast, choppy ride out to the banks, and fried clams, while damn delicious, are not the best fare for a queasy stomach. The salt air hitting your nose is just about the best type of seasoning you could ask for. Each clam was succulent and whole with a crisp, golden crust that tasted clean on the palate and left just the slightest sheen of grease on my fingertips.
I have a clam-eating ritual. I start by selecting the plumpest one in the box (there's no point in saving them to the end, they don't get better as they sit), lifting it up by the ring and feeling the weight of the fat belly which hangs down like a purse. I pick the crust off of the siphon bit—it comes off in a little quarter-inch chunk—and taste it for crispness. Once satisfied, I dip the corner of the belly into the little plastic tub of tartar sauce, just enough to give it a hint of briny acidity and sweetness, then I bite that belly off, keeping the rest of the body in my fingers.
A good clam belly is a bit of an acquired taste. It is, after all, filled with, well, half eaten gunk (I really don't know how else to put it). It has a silty, almost bitter flavor to it with a hint of sweetness, and it should burst in your mouth like an ocean-flavored Gusher. Finally, the rest of the strip hits the tartar sauce and gets knocked back. An onion ring goes in to keep it company, and it all gets washed down with some good root beer.
Fried clams are rarely done well outside of the New England coast. I've seen a decent version here or there as far south as New York (check out the clam roll at Littleneck, for instance), but over-battered, over-fried clams that taste more of fry oil with bellies cooked so hard that no hint of juiciness remains are the norm.
I'm not sure why this is the case, and it's a frequent topic of conversation between my mother and me. She's an absolute fried clam fiend; Several times a summer she'll get up early, make the long drive from New York to Woodman's in Essex (where Lawrence Woodman supposedly invented the modern form of the dish back in 1916) or the Clam Box in Ipswich or perhaps Island Creek Oysters in Boston, polish off an order of fried clams for lunch, then drive right back home. It's a heavy price to pay for seafood perfection, but that's the kind of addiction great fried clams breed in people.
We've come up with several theories between the two of us. The first is the raw ingredients just don't make it down to New York. Fried clams are made with soft shell clams, the kinds with big bellies and long, tender siphons. If you've been to a New England clam shack, you've seen them served as "steamers" (sand gapers if you're from old England), served with a tub of steamer water for washing off the grit, and a tub of drawn butter for making them delicious. If you're getting them fried, they've been pre-shucked and packed fresh into plastic buckets before being delivered to the shop (nobody shucks clams for frying to order).
Of course, this theory doesn't really make sense. New Englanders may get first dibs on those clams, but I've certainly seen the exact same buckets in New York restaurants, shipped down fresh from The Cape, and the clams themselves range all the way down to the Southern U.S., if people are willing to go digging for them.
Could it be that New York chefs simply don't know how to cook 'em right? That seems to happen with many regional specialties: as fantastic a cook as you may be, it's hard to understand the nuances of a dish if you didn't grow up eating and cooking it, and the fact that you're serving it to an audience that has the same limitations certainly doesn't help.
This doesn't make much sense either. Even in New England, fried clams are a completely seasonal thing and it doesn't take a trained chef to took them; Every summer a brand new crew of pimply-faced high schoolers looking for a summer job learn the ropes of soaking clams in buttermilk (or evaporated milk, as the case may be), picking them up by the handful and dropping them into big tubs of cornmeal and flour, shaking them in big baskets, then dunking them into gigantic, bath-sized deep friers until golden brown and crisp.
Maybe it's that equipment. Without those bath-sized fryers or giant breading stations, is it possible to get the same end results?
This theory seems more likely—I've never seen one of those specialized breading stations or giant deep fryers outside of those New England clam shacks, and perhaps there's something to the way cooking in such bulk affects the end product.
Maybe it's just mental. There's something that just doesn't feel right about eating fried clams any other way than out of a paper box, within cool-breeze distance of the ocean. No matter how perfectly it's cooked, a fried clam served on a real plate with white tablecloths in the West Village is just somehow wrong.
Most likely, it's a combination of all these things. There's not much demand for fried clams in a town like New York where oyster bars reign supreme in the casual seafood market, and where there's no demand, there's no real impetus for chefs to take the time to learn how to do it the right way, nor to invest in the type of equipment that'd let 'em do it even if they wanted to.
This is all fine with me.
As much as I'd love to see great fried clams in New York (god help me when I move out to the West Coast this summer), I do love that I have an excuse to take a long drive up the New England coast every summer, a pilgrimage I've made religiously every year for as long as I can remember, and one I plan on taking my own yet-to-be-borns on, as soon as they're old enough to fish. And yes, they will love fried clams as much as I do, because isn't molding children into your own image what good parenting is all about?
For the record: If you ever see the "clam strips" on the menu—those abominations of sliced quahog meat made famous by Howard Johnson's deep freezers—turn on your siphon and jet yourself out of there. Strips are for steak and bacon, end of story. Whole belly or GTFO.