Let me begin by saying that I thought of writing a children's book about a fried clam. The title was going to be Flim-Flam, the Good Fried Clam. The plot was even more of a problem. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist, once remarked (although Virginia Woolf said the same thing 70 years earlier) that we read stories to experience the thrill of the inevitable: to strap ourselves into the life of a character as if the character were a roller coaster, which then goes screaming down the heart-stopping track of life inescapably until it bumps to a stop at the end. But my attempts to bring Flim-Flam the Clam to life on dry paper taught me that a story can be too inevitable.
However the tale started out -- Flam the Clam gets scooped up by a sailor and sees the world, Flam meets a tourist on the beach and is taken back to the cottage for dinner, Flam runs away from his mud-flat home to the city, where he is befriended by a Chinese chef -- it (inevitably) ended with Flam being fried. Because Flam is a clam. And if Flam is a clam, he must be fried -- because as Virginia Woolf also said, a good story makes you feel it can happen only one way. And once fried, he must also be eaten, as it is not believable within the frame of human reference that a fried clam can exist and not be consumed.
So Flam got on the sailboat and even saw Madagascar -- but then he was fried and eaten. He made friends with the tourist's little girl who really -- ah, but then he was fried and eaten. He learned Mandarin while living in a tank for weeks and customers loved him and gave him a name, but . . . yes, delicious clam, he was eaten.
And really, how much of a story is that? Better just to fry the little bastard, and consume him -- and possibly his brothers and sisters and extended family as well.
Here is another clam-related experience you should not attempt: You should not decide to drive from Boston to New Hampshire for the weekend, and in the course of passing through Essex on Cape Ann an hour north of Boston, the birthplace of the fried clam and still home to its finest exemplification, listen to your brother Tim, an equally enthusiastic clam consumer, say, "You know, we should stop and eat clams on the drive back, and try to find the best clam place in Essex," only to depart far too late the following day, thereby leaving yourselves a mere two hours to visit the five finest clam stands in the Western world.
You should not do this because you will try to visit all the clam stands anyway, which would be like going to Perigord and consuming every known variation of foie gras in half an afternoon. It would be bad for your health.
We decided to clam ahead. We have always liked travelling and talking and eating, my brother and I; when we aren't talking, we tend to be eating, or thinking about eating. You might be tempted to suggest that this is a substitute for intimacy, but you would be mistaken.
My brother and I have never had trouble talking about intimate things, provided we're tucking into a lobster roll, or a double-smoked hickory bacon and avocado BLT, or maybe a shrimp, mango and dill mayonnaise rollup.
Then there's the ultimate intimate brotherly thrill -- talking about eating while eating, preferably clams.
At this point, a brief digression is required to discuss the clam qua clam, as Samuel Beckett would have said. Clams are bivalves -- mollusks, if you must -- that burrow under the sea floor.
While there are more than 15,000 species of clam -- the biggest, the aptly named giant clam, Tridacna gigas, can be 1.5 metres long and weigh as much as five table dancers -- the species we are most concerned with here is the Ipswich clam.
The Ipswich is a soft-shell clam found in the mud flats of the Essex River. The Essex is a tidal estuary in Essex Bay, which in turn is part of the 7,000-hectare Great Marsh that riddles the Massachusetts coast all the way to New Hampshire. The lucky clams of Essex Bay can use their tube-like necks, or siphons, to suck in tiny fresh plankton with every flowing tide, twice a day.
Ipswich clams (like clams from Sagadahoc Bay and the Damariscotta River in Maine, which many Essex clammeries use to augment their supply of local mudders) are thus especially fresh, but also "muddy" to the tongue. Disgusting as this sounds, it isn't; the briny taste gives Ipswich fried clams the sour tang that underlies the sweetness of their soft, fried flesh, a knockout one-two combo.
No one's disparaging spaghetti alle vongole, mind you, or a big bowl of steamers with butter at Rodney's in Toronto, or the chowder at the Oyster Bar in the basement of Grand Central Station. They're all delicious. But fried Ipswich clams are the truffles of the sea.
And so, one Sunday afternoon in the spring, as the sun began its decline over western Massachusetts and the liquid granite vapour of the Atlantic rushed into our nostrils from the east, as the lust for clams began to replace our capacity to create metaphor, my dear brother and I set out on our noble, liver-challenging experiment: to eat fried clams from five of the world's best clam eateries, all before they closed in two hours time.
Did I mention my brother and I are systems guys? All the way down from New Hampshire, shortly after we stopped for midafternoon barbecued pork sandwiches at the Yankee Smokehouse in West Ossipee and well before we hit the first mudder hut in Ipswich, we developed a glitch-free eat-and-run plan.
To save time, while one of us parked the car, the other would run into the clam spot and order a "small box." (This is the traditional Yankee clam-ordering phrase. Clams in Essex come in white cardboard boxes, not unlike take-out Chinese food cartons. They are beautiful things.) Meanwhile the parker, having parked the car, would collect ketchup, tartar sauce (preferably home-made according to secret recipe), lemon juice, vinegar, napkins and water, by which time the order man would have paid for the clams. We would then retreat to the car and eat as many clams as we wanted (that is, as many as we could) before starting the car and racing to the next spot, still eating.
We also devised a morphological chart that let us, with a minimum of effort, rate and record in standardized fashion the fried clam-scarfing experience at each clam house (see chart). This was crucial, knowing as we did that the capacity to retain data diminishes in direct proportion to fried-clam ingestion.
All of these antics occurred while driving Route 133 between Ipswich and Essex, Mass., where five of the best fried clammeries in the entire universe are arrayed like . . . like . . . like fine lovers in a lucky past . . . like shrines on a pilgrim's pathway . . . like dreams in a night of sleep. . . .In any event, they're about three minutes apart, on average.
You know you've arrived at the gates of clam heaven when you see the Clam Box on the south side of the road in Ipswich. The Clam Box, a small grey structure in the shape of an open clam box, offers plenty of parking and a serious devotion to frying seafood. A few years ago, it was judged best North Shore seafood spot by Gourmet magazine. Of course, ratings are for idiots: When in Clamville, as Heraclitus said in a completely different context, one must judge for oneself.
The Clam Box has plenty of charms. You can smell the fried-clam smell, the Chanel No. 22 of the sea, from the parking lot. There's a sign on the door that says, "We will be changing our oil at approximately 2:30 today. This will take about 15-20 minutes. We apologize for the delay and for any inconvenience." For a serious clam eater, 20 minutes is a holdup of Tantric proportions.
The Clam Box is not fancy, but like most New England Yankee things, it is decent: The restaurant insists on shirts and shoes. Owner Marina (Chickie) Aggelakis (her father started the nearby Agawam Diner in Rowley, which is well worth a visit), likes to douse her freshly shucked clams in evaporated milk before they're dredged in finely ground corn meal and plunged into a vat of boiling lard for 30 seconds, to roil off excess breading. They're then replunged into a second vat of seething lard. We found 40 clams in a small box, and we'd eaten half of them by the time we got to The Village Restaurant, clam spot No. 2, a short drive down the road into Essex.
"How do you like them?" I said to Tim, in what was already, by now, a rare outburst. "I can't stop eating them," he said. Which was quite obvious: I only asked to distract him, so I could grab a few fried necks of my own.
The Village Restaurant will let you order clams to carry, but it occupies the opposite end of the fried-clam-eating hierarchy, as a sit-down restaurant. This is a lovely idea, though the prospect of getting a table and waiting for a server to come by and then deliver the clams -- on a plate, no less! -- might be a serious challenge for the clam-deprived, which we still considered ourselves.
Fortunately the owners, brothers Mark and Kevin Ricci, whose family opened The Village Restaurant in 1956, do fast and brilliant take-out as well. If there is a golden-standard for fried clams, the Village's fare is it: crisp, light, succulent, and as delicious at the bottom of the box as they were at the top.
We performed our unpatented park-eat-drive-rate routine. Five minutes later we were on the road again. The Village fryers were so good -- the best of the lot, as it turned out -- that this time we ate the entire box of 24. By now, two-fifths of the way into our quest, we had each consumed two dozen deep-fried invertebrates.
Whereupon we arrived at Woodman's. Woodman's is a wood-plank roadside emporium hard by the Essex mud flats, and always has been: It was here, on the morning of July 3, 1916, at the suggestion of a local fisherman trying to sell excess supply, that Lawrence (Chubby) Woodman, a potato chip maker, invented the fried clam. (Judging from his and even Mrs. Woodman's size in later years, the great event didn't occur a moment too soon.)
Woodman's is the biggest of Essex's generally smallish clam spots, the most clamant and atmospheric. It also serves the largest Ipswich clams, which some clamists consider too big, "except for people from Connecticut." (I have no idea what that means.)
In any event, that was another 18 basted bivalves. I feel impelled here to say that it doesn't take long to eat a fried clam. There's the initial burst of fried fat flavour on the tongue; the contemporaneous crunch of the fried bits and the delicate burst of the sea-fed tendon; the gluttonous, guilty, gulping swallow; the autonomic reach for another, the brief mourning upon reaching the bottom of the box and finding no more. Like so many other things -- the Belmont, Pomp and Circumstance, the short stories of Dovlatov -- it's always over faster than you'd like.
It was only then, back in the car, steadying myself for the now dusky race to clam spot No. 4, that I noticed I didn't . . . feel terribly well. Nothing to stop me from eating on, mind you . . . but small spots had begun to appear before my eyes. The only place I'd read about such symptoms was in Archie comics, when Archie overdid it at Pops' Diner on hamburgers. The spots I saw were smaller than clams, but they made me want to lie down.
My brother, who eats fried clams all the time, felt better by comparison: He was a little green, and a Maginot line of perspiration dots had popped out in single file on his forehead. Still, he wanted to carry on, because we had yet to arrive at his favourite clam house, J.T. Farnham's, a brief four minutes down the road, but nevertheless around several quite sickening corners.
But as with any strenuous endeavour, so it is with clams: One must eat through the low points to attain the golden plain of digestion. In addition to a box of Farnham's finest -- small, sweet, light and fresh, in clean oil, a very close runner-up to the paragons of the Village Restaurant -- we also ordered a small beer. Beer -- oh happy discovery! -- turns out to be the liver-cleansing antidote to fried clam overdose. The eatery was crisp and clean, sharply framed in blond pine, and uncrowded. I found I could eat and even talk again.
This left only one spot, Essex Seafood. The young girl serving the clams there was very pretty. Unfortunately, in addition to changing the oil, she might have changed her sweatshirt as well, given that it appeared to have soaked up a barrel or two of light crude.
"What do you think of the atmosphere?" my brother said, chewing vigorously and compulsively tending to our rating boxes.
"It's sort of classy," I said.
"The knotty pine panelling with Arborite thing, you mean?"
The ceiling was very low: An extremely tall young man in a rasta-style hat and an iridescent basketball costume was sweeping the floor, oblivious to the fact the he was repeatedly being nearly beheaded by a spinning ceiling fan.
"What would you like to say about these?" I said. They were Ipswich clams, the real, pungent thing.
"You cah deteck eh locah flavah," Tim said, his clamhole crammed with hot fricasseed mollusk. "Eh's mah su'stance inna belly, unh uh creamiah tas."
He finally swallowed. "But they're much richer, and probably fattier."
"That would be the Essex mud," I said.
"It's almost like eating foie gras."
And, of course, he had it. This is what fried clams are: foie gras for everyman, the caviar of the yobs.
By the time we got back to my brother's home, half an hour later, we'd consumed 41 fried clams each, and there were 52 left for tomorrow. There wasn't much we hadn't talked about, so we poured two bowls of cereal, ate them and went to bed. Some day, I must tell you about the dreams we had.
Rating Massachusetts' best clam stands
The Village Restaurant
55 Main St. Essex
Price per "small box": $17.95 (U.S.)
Quantity per small box: 24
Avg. size: length/belly: 5 cm
Coating thickness: Light to medium crust, but not overdone
Taste parameters: Fresh. Golden. Plump. More colour than others
Atmosphere: More collared shirts than Ts. Sit down service. Dark wood interior
Time to delivery: 5 minutes
Service: Fast and classy
Cleanliness: Very clean
Homemade tartar sauce?: Yes. Has more pickle
Crowd: Conservative, older, "several walkers"
The Clam Box
246 High St.
Price per "small box": $12.75
Quantity per small box: 40
Avg. size: length/belly: 2.5 cm
Coating thickness: Light
Taste parameters: Slightly muddy and sweet. "Some green bits"
Atmosphere: Inoffensively kitschy, straightforward
Time to delivery: 12 minutes
Service: Scattered. "Can I help you?" five times
Homemade tartar sauce?: Yes, free, but have to ask
Crowd: Local passerby
Woodman's of Essex
Main St. _Essex
Price per "small box": $17
Quantity per small box: 18
Avg. size: length/belly: 7.6 cm
Coating thickness: More crust than others
Taste parameters: "Brown." Greasier, darker, less coating. Rich
Atmosphere: Summertime. Benches. Staff in white
Time to delivery: 10 minutes in line, 4 minutes from order
Homemade tartar sauce?: Uncertain and unspectacular
J.T. Farnham's Restaurant
88 Eastern Ave. Essex
Price per "small box": $11
Quantity per small box: 25
Avg. size: length/belly: 2.5 cm
Coating thickness: Crunchier
Taste parameters: "Golden." Fresher, lighter, sweeter batter. Not greasy
Atmosphere: Fresh, knotty pine, beachcomber décor. Superb view of Essex mud flats
Time to delivery: 3 minutes
Service: 3 minutes to cook, no line
Cleanliness: Very! Spotless
Homemade tartar sauce?: Yes
Crowd: People on their way home
143R Eastern Ave.
Price per "small box": $12.55 (small clams)
Quantity per small box: 27
Avg. size: length/belly: "Miniscule"
Coating thickness: Fairly light
Taste parameters: "Older oil"
Atmosphere: Not-so-fresh knotty pine and Arborite. "Newfoundland romantic"
Time to delivery: 4 minutes
Service: Friendly but funky
Cleanliness: "Passed the Board of Health"
Homemade tartar sauce?: "Heinz"
Crowd: "What crowd?"