It started with nibbling, munching, even licking every clam I could get my tongue on.
It was coastal Maine, America's very own heartland of clam, and I was on a clam bender.
In the midst of my mollusk frenzy, I took a moment to post an image to Facebook. It was of a large bucket of steamers. I was taken aback by the rapid response of my friend Julie, who commented, "Am I the only one who thinks clams are disgusting?"
No, she is undoubtedly not the only clam hater. So why was I so surprised? Because Julie is a Yale-educated, supremely gifted artist, and an otherwise lovely, open-minded soul...with a profound appreciation for the sea.
Therefore, I felt a responsibility to report on all the clammy wonderfulness that Julie is missing as a consequence of her inexplicable and wrongheaded aversion.
- Fried clams. If there are three perfect fried foods in the world, the other two are chicken and potatoes. In the case of the clam, that is due to the textural sensation of the golden coating juxtaposed against the salty sweetness of the entrapped clam. However, caveat emptor: there are fried clams, and then there are fried clams. More specifically, fried clam strips, which use only a portion of the whole clam, yield an unworthy breading to clam ratio. Instead, what you want is the whole clam belly, well coated and properly fried in clean, hot oil, to produce the total joy that comes from the soft, seaworthy oozing revealed upon mastication. A squeeze of lemon is fine, and perhaps a tiny dip of homemade tartar sauce might enhance the heavenly happiness. But none for Julie.
- Steamed clams. Here I refer to the soft shell bivalves known as "steamers." Best when served in the aforementioned bucket, they do require a little work before ingestion. That is, one must perform somewhat of a culinary circumcision by pulling off the small, black foreskin-like membrane that covers the neck of the clam. Don't be put off by this quick and easy procedure, for when these plump-from-the-sea sand dwellers are good and fresh, they want for nothing more than the briefest bath in the hot clam broth that accompanies their arrival for the purpose of removing any extraneous sand particles. Sure, you could also dip 'em into the warm melted butter, but when their succulent, bulbous bellies are at their eating peak, they're so sweet that you shouldn't even have to. And Julie don't get none.
- Baked clams. Aka Clams Oreganata and Clams Casino. Some places will chop up clams and fill a large clam shell with a little clam and a lot of superfluous breading. Don't go to those places. The experience you're paying for is the whole clam, its own half-shell stuffed with fresh, seasoned bread crumbs, then placed under a burning hot broiler so as to render it browned and just crisp enough. Then, one sucks out the entire production at once, creating a cacophonous culinary crescendo of clam and crumb in your watering mouth. A proper baked clam is a thing of beauty -- sweet, salty, crunchy and a little chewy. Clams Casino, by the way, include a little bit of bacon, adding another flavorful dimension to an already wondrous composition. Disgusting? Au contraire, Julie.
- Clam Chowder. You've got your creamy New England variety and your tomato-based Manhattan version. Each has its proponents and detractors. Although neither will hurt you, if I had to choose only one to warm the cockles of my heart on a dreary, damp, rainy day, it would have to be New England's. Chock full of moist potatoes and generous, fat chunks of Quahog clams peeking out from a rich, velvety clam broth, often accented by the slightly smoky hint of bacon. Sorry, Julie, only tomato soup for you.
- Clam Pizza. They may not be too common to come by, but if you like clams, come by one. The clam pizza at Zuppardi's in West Haven, Connecticut, for example, is made with just shucked clams and a hint of fresh garlic on a perfectly blistered pizza crust. There is no cheese on this pie, nor tomato sauce. Rather, imagine something akin to a paper thin, piping hot bruschetta topped with gossamer clams and a sauce produced by the very liquid they release upon baking. Say what you might about clam pie; this is a work of gastronomic art. I've also had it with mozzarella and it is none too shabby. Alas, Julie won't be having a slice.
- Linguini with Clam Sauce. Nor will Julie be enjoying a perfect plate of al dente pasta populated by whole baby clams, aroused by garlic, swimming ever so lightly in a shallow pool of goodness produced by olive oil with perhaps a hit of butter that has been suffused by the juicy juice of the clams themselves. On behalf of all Americans -- with the exception of Julie -- I'd like to thank the Italians for this elegant contribution to civilization.
- Clams in Black Bean Sauce. Let us not leave out the Chinese when it comes to plaudits for excellent clam combinations. In this formidable pairing, one licks the clam from the shell and immediately notices its natural sweetness when set against the pungent black sauce. Julie will have to make due with the white rice on the side.
- Raw clams. Served "on the half shell", this is pleasure of the pristine variety. Although Little Necks have come to stand for a size categorization, their name is said to have derived from the source where they were originally cultivated, Little Neck Bay, in Queens, New York, where I coincidentally fell for my first love, Gina Maria Imbriola Theresa Camiletti. My second love: clams. Or, you might opt for the Cherrystones, which are larger, thicker and chewier, but also delightful. In either case, they require nothing more than a light squirt of lemon and a touch of horseradish-studded cocktail sauce with perhaps a splash of Tabasco if you so desire. But please, not too much; it's the clam you're paying for, not the sauce. And what you get for your money is a symphony of slurping the sweet, saline essence of the sea. One must appreciate the natural goodness of a food with so much flavor, yet so little fat, carbs or calories. Clams 8, Julie 0.
- Grilled clams. Whole, rinsed, unopened clams are placed onto the grate of a hot barbecue, the grill covered. Almost miraculously, they will open themselves the second they are ready, about 4-5 minutes, depending on the heat of the grill and size of the clam. Once they do, you will remove them ever so gently so as not to lose one single eyedropful of the glorious liquid inside the shell -- officially known as the clam's liquor -- in which they have just steamed. You will proceed to vacuum out the entire clam and its intoxicating broth into your awaiting gullet and marvel at the wonder of one of the very few foods in existence that require not one single other ingredient to improve upon it. For my money, this is the very best one-ingredient dish in the world. Your friends will ask for the recipe, and you will think kindly of me.
Except, of course, for Julie.