Why Raw Clams Are Making a Comeback in New England and Beyond

20150608-clams-closeup.jpg
Niki Achitoff-Gray

I moved from Boston to Oregon a few years ago, and while I love it out here, there are some things I miss and have to go without. Dunkin' Donuts French vanilla iced coffee, for one (judge away). A classic lobster roll. Regina's pizza, plain, eaten in a high-backed booth at the original location in the North End. And lastly, most importantly, a must-do whenever I'm home for a visit: a silver platter of raw New England clams, ice cold, with a glass of white to wash it down.

My obsession began on Martha's Vineyard, where I spent many a summer afternoon kneeling in Lake Tashmoo, rooting around in the sand for the unmistakable ridge of a hard shell. My friends and I would bring along lemons and horseradish, work the blades of our knives along the clams' seams, and knock them back right there on the beach. The pleasure of raw clams is in that pure, smooth ocean flavor, of course, but it's also in the way you eat them in the first place—that pleasant weight of shell between thumb and index finger, the tilting back, the hollow clink as empty shell hits plate.

In Boston alone, you can enjoy a platter of raw, local clams in just about every neighborhood, from Neptune Oyster in the North End to B&G Oysters in the South End to the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore to the recently opened Select Oyster Bar in the Back Bay. More and more clam shack-style restaurants are opening across the country (see Connie & Ted's in West Hollywood, GT Fish and Oyster in Chicago, etc. etc.).

Even New England cookery, long dismissed as bland and blah, has been enjoying a newfound respect. Top Chef's last season was filmed in Boston, and up-and-coming chefs like Will Gilson at Puritan in Cambridge, and Matt Jenning at Townsman in downtown Boston are getting attention for showcasing age-old recipes in new ways. You can't talk about New England cookery without talking about the clam. Clams casino, clam chowder, fried clams, the clam bake, the stuffie? They'd be nothing without our favorite bivalve. And with all this renewed interest, the humble clam is on center stage. You could even call it a comeback.

20131008-clamming-raking.jpg
Jamie Feldmar

There are a number of clam species native to New England, from the steamer to the razor, but when you're talking about which variety makes the nicest addition to a raw bar menu, you're talking about the Northern Quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria). Think of the quahog itself as an umbrella term with different classifications depending on size, measured in inches, from valve to valve. The general rule is that the smaller the Quahog, the more tender and tastier it will be raw. Little Necks (at an inch or so across) and Top Necks (at two inches) are the smallest you can legally take home. Cherrystones measure three inches or so across. Your Chowders, at four inches or more in size, are too tough and chewy to work well raw. As their name suggests, they're best served simmered for hours in a nice broth.

Since quahogs grow in the sediment and are typically exposed to lower salt levels than oysters, which grow at the surface, their flavor can be more subtle. Other factors like ocean temperature and time of year can influence how they taste, but forget what you've heard about avoiding raw shellfish during 'R' months. Every expert I've talked to was dismissive of the rule, which likely arose out of concerns for red tide contamination (which occurs more frequently in the summer) before testing was as thorough and regulated as it is now. There's simply no wrong time to order clams.

20150604-raw-clams-1.jpg
Shutterstock

Perhaps there was no better, more important moment to eat clams, though, than on the shores of Massachusetts in the 1600's. I'm talking Pilgrims. I'm talking dangerously low food rations. Without the help of Native Americans, who taught them how to harvest local shellfish among other invaluable skills, it's unlikely that the Pilgrims would have survived their first winter. Oysters and clams were so central to the local diet that they likely had a prominent place on the first Thanksgiving table. Beads made from the quahog shell, known as wampum, were used in trade throughout the region. There was even a time when 1,900 wampum could buy you a year of tuition at Harvard.

Talk to any clam lover and they'll tell you that the purest, most delicious, best-suited-to-summer way you can eat them is ice cold on the half shell. Now, those of you who are a little hesitant to take the plunge are probably running through lists of news items you've read about red tide and people you know who pin a particularly horrific bout of food poisoning on a bad clam.

Yes, eating a raw clam is a risk, but so is eating most anything raw. Rick Karney, Director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group that manages and maintains shellfisheries on the island, is reassuring on this count. He says that testing on reputable shellfish beds, be they clam or oyster, are "done regularly, and done with care." Part of what he admires and respects about clams are the integral role they play in a delicate ecosystem. "They're the link between biological productivity in the surface water and the sediments," he says. "They filter the water and make it clear," which threatened species like Eelgrass need in order to survive.

Karney thinks of clams as "very zen" in their simple and rhythmic existence. To him, their flavor raw is "the essence of seawater" and, in a time when one of the hottest words in food is local, he's confident that "nothing could be more local than a raw shellfish." When I asked him about his favorite clam dish, he named five. "You're making me hungry!" he said, as we ended the call.

Chris Sherman, President of Island Creek Oysters out of Duxbury, Massachusetts, shares Karney's enthusiasm for clams. "Honestly," he said, "I've been eating more clams raw lately than oysters." He describes their flavor on the half-shell as "bitter, rich, and complex." While many people consider ordering all clams or all oysters at their raw bar of choice, Sherman recommends combining the two. The clams "provide a nice counterpoint to the buttery softness of oysters." And he knows how to appreciate the experience, as he's still out on the water most every day working in the Island Creek shellfishery.

20150608-clams-tray.jpg
Niki Achitoff-Gray

Part of that process, like Karney's, involves adapting to the challenges of a "dynamic environment" where an unforeseen algal bloom or weather event can jeopardize a harvest. Climate change and its impact on shellfisheries, mainly through rising pH levels in the ocean, has gotten more and more play in recent months. Chris acknowledges the threat—"It's definitely a thing," he says—but sees it as "more of a poster child for a whole host of environmental changes providing a whole bunch of challenges." For oyster and clam farmers, rising pH is "one of many things that keep [us] up at night." While we won't see many changes at the raw bar in the immediate future, it's worth noting all the effort that goes into making sure things stay that way.

Chef Andrew Taylor of much buzzed about restaurant Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine, has always had that respect for ingredient and farmer. In a way, that's what inspired him to showcase "the ocean's bounty," as he puts it, at the restaurant. He wrestled for years developing his clam chowder recipe, digging 50-pound bushels of quahogs and working summer after summer to get it right.

The result (a classic New England clam chowder with salt pork, potato, and biscuit) is now a staple and consistent seller on the menu. To him, that process was all about the "utilization of product," something he sees as a key characteristic of New England cooking in general. "It's all about resourcefulness," he says. Classic New England cuisine "can be seen as drab, can be kind of Old English. But you have to make the best of the seasons and of what you have. I love that Puritan resourcefulness." While there are loads of oyster options on his raw bar menu, you can find local littlenecks too. Taylor describes their texture as different than oysters. "They have a snap to them," he says. As for their flavor, we talked about all the expected things like brininess and mouth feel, but he got sort of wistful as he launched into a memory. "I think of going to the beach at low tide," he says. "You can just smell the ocean." He pauses for a second and laughs. "I dream about it."

20150608-clams-in-hand.jpg
Niki Achitoff-Gray

Later in our conversation, Taylor said about New England that, "when you're born here, it's in you for life." I knew just what he meant. A big part of that "it," at least for me, is our particular swath of ocean. It has so many faces. There's the calm regularity of the tides and the sheer power in a wave as a hurricane blows in. That you can hold these two truths in mind and be talking about the same thing—there's something very New England about that.

On the flight from Oregon to Boston, I always get a little tingle as the plane descends into Logan airport and we fly what feels like inches over the harbor. I want to get in, to watch the waves for hours. I want to be immersed in ocean. Later that day or maybe the next, I will. I'll sidle up to the bar at Neptune's in the North End and order half a dozen littlenecks with a glass of wine and know I'm home.

Eating a raw clam may be like kissing the sea (to paraphrase French poet Leon Paul Fargue). It may be a way to bridge the gap between yourself and Hemingway, who famously wrote about oysters and their "faint metallic taste" in A Moveable Feast. Or you might be a thrill-seeker, a Bourdain enthusiast, who fervently agrees when he declares in Kitchen Confidential that, "good food, good eating, is all about risk." Whatever your reason, whoever the guide, consider the clam next time. You won't be disappointed.