Tuesday, January 22, 2008

More Thoughts on Razor Clams

My friend Trouthole thinks it's sacrilege to consign razor clams to a kettle of chowder, but I'm from New England originally and there are few higher expressions of good home cooking than a hearty chowder on a winter day. (Don't ask me about Manhattan.) That said, Trouthole has a point. No clam tastes better fried than the razor. I don't want to be overly provincial about this. I'll eat clams from all over the world—Cape Cod quahogs, Long Island littlenecks, New Jersey longnecks, British surf clams, Japanese manilas—but after discovering the meaty bivalve that Northwesterners have known about for millennia (going back to the first inhabitants) I have to concede that the crown goes to the razor.

This is no small claim coming from an uprooted Connecticut Yankee. Let's face it: New England has a monopoly on fried clams and clam shacks. There's a lot at stake here. Fried clams are to New England what barbecue is to the South, and like the barbecue wars, the region has its own family arguments about what constitutes a good fried clam. Generally speaking the clam is dipped in liquid (usually evaporated milk) and then rolled in some sort of flour (breadcrumbs, cornmeal, plain flour, or a combination) before deep frying. Whether or not to include the algae-packed stomach is one of the central squabbles in the tradition (this point being moot with razors, since they must be cleaned before cooking). If the clams are fresh and succulent, few foods compare.

Some will call it heresy, others an indication of how far I've strayed. But I'll say it anyway: fried razor clams are the best. (The photo above was my lunch today: fried razor diggers, or feet, the anatomy of the clam used for digging into the sand, and the tenderest part.) Too often the clams of the East Coast, especially if not dug and shucked that day, are unobtrusive enough that a person with no particular love of clams—or an abiding taste for Styrofoam—can order a basket without fear for his undiscerning palate. Granted, the conditions of the clam shack where he orders that basket will be far superior to the simulacra we have here on the West Coast. But history and atmosphere notwithstanding, I still urge my Compatriots of the Clam from Ipswich and Essex, from Narragansett and Kennebunkport, to journey west and try a fresh razor clam in its native habitat. These golden beauties are positively ebullient with the essence of clam, the experience not unlike gulping down raw oysters: a sweet, delirious taste of the sea.

One last thought: razor clamming reminds me of that great Henry Weinhard's beer commercial from several years back. A bunch of young slackers are on the dunes drinking Henry's. Goatees, lots of plaid. "Here come the hotties," one announces. Cut to a shot of the wind-swept beach with a cold, gray ocean backdrop—and a bunch of girls clad not in bikinis but in so many layers of foul-weather gear that they look like nothing so much as the Michelin tire man. Ah, the Northwest.

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