I truly don’t understand why you would order tough, rubbery, mostly-batter, fried clam strips. I concede, there’s a really good, oceany pungency to them that tastes they way a found clamshell on the beach smells. But that texture… It’s just unpleasant. I might as well make nuoc mam-flavored chewing gum.
Growing up, I couldn’t understand why you would fry clams at all. Why take something so succulent and juicy and turn it into what tasted like bland-battered and deep-fried bouncy ball? Clam strips don’t usually hold up in flavor well to how heavily they’re battered, either… and I do mean battered in every meaning of the word.
So long ago, when my mother-in-law told me that we were going to be stopping for fried clams on our way up to Maine, I had my doubts. When she placed her order at Flanders Fish Market in Connecticut, she was very specific to order fried clam “bellies.” I had no idea what this meant, but knew there must be a distinction. The entire family sat out on the sunny deck and waited for our orders while “enjoying” the soft rock that was being pumped outside. Hey, it’s Connecticut. When the basket came out, it didn’t look like any fried clam basket that I’d ever had.
Fried clam bellies, it turns out, just means that they’ve gone ahead and fried the entire small clam varietal, not just a shredded strip of a giant clam tongue (read: rubber central). When done well, i.e. lightly battered so it fries quickly, the little clam doesn’t get overcooked and tough. Instead, you break through crisp bready shell into a juicy and decadent clam center. Hollaaaaaa. Sprinkled with lemon juiced and lovingly dipped in horseradishy cocktail sauce, these little clam bonbons (vs. the clam mentos that I had tried and hated in the past, although regular mentos are great) engraved themselves into my food memory. I nodded at my mother-in-law in acknowledgement of this food accomplishment and she nodded back. A silent exchange of a common clam-belly ground. Clam bellies – my solution to bonding with your in-laws. Vodka doesn’t hurt either.
On our way back from Fisher’s Island, CT a few weeks ago, I made Chris call his mom from the drive for SPECIFIC instructions on how to get back to Flanders – the site of my clam belly inauguration. Soft rock and sunny deck in place, we once again enjoyed an entire basket of delicious fried clam bellies with a side of fries, and then only slightly regretfully stared at our empty plate while contemplating the long drive back home.