Thursday, April 22, 2010

feeling slightly clammy

Is it possible you've been so preoccupied with ramps and other spring vegetables that you've neglected to think about clam cakes? I suppose you could make your own at home whenever you like, especially if you're willing to use frozen clams, but if you are the type to set off on a spontaneous road trip to Maine to eat them in their native habitat you've got to mind the calendar. My stepfather was doing just that and so a planned weekend visit to his place in CT recently turned into a relatively-unplanned visit to southern Maine instead.

To Ken's, specifically. A fried seafood joint in Scarborough, Maine. I am still officially not in the habit of blogging about eating sentient beings, and yet I feel obligated to tell you that Ken's is open for the season. Voila, clam cakes. There are lots of other things on the menu — fried clams, lobster rolls, etc. — but we went for clam cakes and did not regret it.

clam cakes clam cake innards

They're available in sandwich form (on hamburger buns) or all by themselves in little wax paper sacks. Most in our party eat them as pictured above, with crisp but otherwise utterly indifferent french fries, perfectly acceptable cole slaw, squishy rolls of the variety that would be disappointing elsewhere but become palatable in salty New England seaside air, and homemade tartar sauce (not on the menu, I think, but now you know to ask for it). Note the bloody mary in the background, although beer is fine too. I'm entirely convinced that as a meal this is more than the sum of its parts, but the seasonal habits of migratory eaters are hard to break. If you're in search of new habits or have yet to acquire any, my stepsister reports that clam cakes are pretty good dipped into lobster stew. I also noted two white-haired guys at a nearby table looked rather convincing eating theirs with a thin smear of yellow mustard.

As for what differentiates clam cakes from fritters, I can only tell you that I have never personally known them as fritters but have little reason to believe they are not, in fact, fritters on some basic level. Wikipedia says they are typically made with chopped clams in a batter of flour, milk, clam juice, eggs and baking powder. Very fritter-ish, no? I've never made them at home but were I to try, this recipe for clam fritters would be the one I would reach for; it looks appropriate and trustworthy and the results . . . look more or less like clam cakes to me.* I am almost — only almost — willing to hazard a guess that what's called a fritter on Long Island and in Massachusetts is called a cake in Maine and Rhode Island (e.g.). A few hungry minutes of research reveal plenty of exceptions, though I'm not sure it's fair to call them "exceptions" when there don't seem to be any firm rules.

As for whether clams are sentient beings, I am willing to say yes I think they are. At least, I don't see why they're not. They don't have a central nervous system but they do have sensations, responses to their surroundings, and a way of life. They have hearts, feet and gonads and varying degrees of interest in opening and shutting their homes. I don't know much about them but the pictures of their various features here seem helpful.

Anyhow, if you want to digest your first clam cakes of the season while walking on a chilly, deserted beach and photographing shuttered motels, you'd better hurry.

IMG_1687 1974

IMG_1684 1974

IMG_1664 magazine

IMG_1659 1974 off-season anchors

off-season galaxy


And if you want to take a few clam cakes for a ride back to NYC or other points south, Ken's will sell you uncooked ones. Don't freeze them or they'll turn gummy! In fact I think you might be better off getting cooked ones and re-heating them on a baking sheet. I'm pretty sure the ones at the restaurant are deep-fried and you won't get the same results pan-frying them at home.

If you are looking for a place to stop for a snack on your way up to Ken's, you might try Reilly's bakery in Biddeford, which has been in business since 1910. My stepfather is fond of their cream horns filled with buttercream frosting but they close around 1 o'clock on Saturdays, and apparently much of their supply sells out well before then. By the time we got there (maybe 1:15?) the door was locked and the display cases were bare. This stung a bit. As a kid I found rainy-day drives to Reilly's agonizing because they were inevitably preceded by awkward visits to distant relatives, and because I was always too full of blueberry pancake breakfasts to have any interest in baked goods. This time I was interested and not full of pancakes. Alas. Someday, Reilly's.

* I have a suspicion that many of the people who cook summer clam cakes for a living would go cross-eyed about Mr. Claiborne's fresh parsley, but if you want to experiment with it behind closed kitchen doors I'm not going to discourage you.


  1. "if you want to digest your first clam cakes of the season while walking on a chilly, deserted beach and photographing shuttered motels"--I do, I do, I do

    also: bring on the sprouts (or whatever that is sprouting under the cheesecloth (triffids?)!

  2. I'd heard of triffids but had to refresh my memory, and naturally they are on a long and fascinating list of fictional plants. Unfortunately those little weirdos under the cheesecloth are only almonds!

  3. Laraudogoitia's Beautiful Supertask11:09 AM

    My nitpicky feeling is that a fritter properly is fried batter, while these cakes seem to be fried dough. A question perhaps of how much you have to wash your hands after shaping the item and tossing it in the hot oil.

    I will not here venture a nitpick about the meaning of "sentient."

  4. That's exactly what I forgot I intended to mention until after I hit the "publish" button. There's always something. Anyhow, yes, and The Oxford Companion to Food defines a fritter as "a small portion of deep-fried batter, usually but not always containing a piece of fruit, meat, fish or vegetable." But it goes on to say that "[m]any kinds of batter or dough are used to make fritters. . . . Runny yeast-leavened batters are used in some areas, making fritters akin to doughnuts. Some fritter-like confections are made in twisted shapes, for example, the various kinds of cruller. Others are closer to deep-fried stuffed pastries of the samosa type." Hmm. I would never think of anything samosa-like as a fritter; I think of pakoras when I think of fritters. The thing is, I think the not-clam part of these particular clam cakes is somewhere between a batter and a dough. In their fresh, uncooked form these cakes are not dense or fine-grained enough to be what I think of as dough. I think of dough as being comprised of very small particles. When I was dividing up our stash in Ken's parking lot the cakes seemed in imminent danger of falling apart, but they weren't at all wet. And if I had to guess what's in them besides clams, I think they might be made with cracker crumbs soaked in milk or water. (Clam juice would do the trick, though the taste isn't super-clammy or even very salty). They don't taste or feel like they're made of a flour dough to me. There's also definitely a bit of cornmeal or corn flour on the outside. Exhibit A (large photo of interior).

  5. Laraudogoitia's Beautiful Supertask11:09 PM

    I realized after I commented that I was wrong. There are plenty of perfectly fine cakes made from fried batter: funnel cakes, for instance.

    I am now going to aver that a fritter can be a cake if it is round.

  6. A funnel cake is a tricky example. Particularly if one is inclined to use common law methodology to resolve questions of fritter policy. They're sold as a cake but if I had to describe one to someone who'd never seen one I would tell them it was a fritter. And yet I think of their uncooked substance as being more like a dough than a batter. Compare uncooked funnel cake substance with uncooked jalebi substance; they look similar after frying but the funnel cake stuff looks slightly thicker to me — it looks a bit like choux pastry dough whereas jalebi stuff does not.

  7. IMO, fritters are more batter sloppy and deeply fried than cakes that have just enough egg and flour to bind the main ingredients. (As one of P-Dutch heritage, the funnel cake is supposed to be a greasy spiral of loose pancake/waffle batter.)

    A swell swing up the Maine coast (how I love that state along rocky waters). Would venture clams are sentient, but then, in my tormented scheme of things, anything outside of bedrock is. Even so, I do know how delish they are. Would I were a starfish and not have such issues. ; }

    Nifty photos, although I think I would have to sleep standing up like a horse in the Driftwood Motel - ya know what I'm sayin'?

  8. That's a good way of putting it, Susan, particularly "more . . . deeply fried." Crab cakes are only ever cooked (I hope) in a pan with a shallow slick of oil, never deep-fried.

    I'm not sure about sleeping standing up at the Driftwood — prone but diagonal might be the only way to do it!