Eat Drink Local Profile #32: Clams

East Hampton bayman Albie Lester learned how to make clam pie by watching his grandmother. “She would make cinnamon buns from the extra pie dough.”

The Ingredient:

Clams. If you had planned ahead you would have baked a clam pie last night.

Because, like many pies, clam pie — at its simplest, clams, potatoes and onions baked in a pie crust — gets better when it’s reheated. And because today — in your kitchen, at Eat Drink Local restaurants, and across this great region — is the day of clams, our first of the 11 Ingredients of the Day. (And for far more on clam pies, including a 1948 recipe, scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Why They’re Important:

Clams haven’t always been so en vogue. “Clam digger” was the derogatory term given to Long Islanders by inhabitants of New York City, and food historian Sandra Oliver notes ” a bit of embarrassment associated with eating clams,” in parts of northern New England. But for a variety of climatic, cultural, and economic reasons, the opprobrium didn’t take hold in eastern Long Island, where clam has long been an important food source, and where it yielded an astonishing range of dishes, like clam pie.

And despite this bottom of the food chain rep, the humble clam has been a mighty valuable New York crop. For most of past few centuries, the value of clam landings equaled or exceeded the value of all other seafood caught in the state. New York has historically been the largest supplier of clams in the country–most of them moved through Fulton Fish Market–as well as one of the largest clam consuming states.

Long before the Grand Central Oyster Bar was serving clam pan roasts, the shore-based diet of the Shinnecock Indians was  riddled with the mollusk.  A few years ago, Josephine Smith, a Shinnecock and native cook, told us that her ancestors made soups of clams, potatoes and wild onions before Europeans arrived. “Even today, my kids and I get soft-shell clams and hard-shell clams and just sit on the beach and eat them.”

Accounts from as late as the 1800s regularly describe New Yorkers finding clams as big as a man’s head. In 1947 clam landings in New York reached a peak of over 10 million pounds of meats. By 1982, however, this number had dropped to less than 4 million pounds. Many of the beds had been raked clean. And a few incidents of food poisoning from Great South Bay squashed demand. Since then, harvests have remained relatively stagnant, although several large seeding efforts by The Nature Conservancy in the Great South Bay and by Cornell Cooperative Marine Center in the Peconic Bay hope to rebuild clam stocks.

Perhaps because the catch exists mostly a few inches below the bay bottom close to shore, a sensitive and very visible environment, the harvesting of clams remains largely manual–about 80 to 90% or more of Long Island’s clamdiggers use rakes. The beautiful 2006 Americana film Diggers, starring Ken Marino and Paul Rudd as 20-something Long Islanders making the best of depleted clam beds and other wasted opportunities, includes scenes of clam raking from small motor boats while smoking joints. (Check out the scene 1 minute into this trailer below.) Most amateur clam diggers visit a tidal flat at the low point and rake the bay bottom or tread, digging their feet into the sand to feel out clams–actor and Long Island native Alec Baldwin recalls his father treading for clams on the Great South Bay, a technique still widely used today.

Why We Love Them:

There’s of course all the local lore and history above to love about clams, but the real reason, naturally, is the way they taste–unabashedly salty, chewy and satisfying. And one way to help push along a clam resurgence is to demand them, at seafood shops and restaurants, and work them into your diet. (By the way, when buying clams in New York, you have a legal right to see the digging ticket which will tell you where and when the bivalves were dug.) We know from Puget Sound and elsewhere that when there’s the demand, municipalities and fish farmers can help rebuild wild stocks, which means more clam eating, but also heathier waters: clams, like oysters, are filter feeders, sucking up the water and tiny algae that surround them.

Where to Find Them:

Let’s start by knowing your clams. Most New York fishmongers will carry hard clams or quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria) in varying sizes, from big chowders or smaller cherrystones that are often cut up for chowder, to littlenecks, just above legal size, that are coveted for eating on the half shell. Their soft-shelled cousins, steamer clams (Mya arenaria), are not as common in stores, but some say much sweeter–they’re the type you dip in butter. Skimmers or surf clams (Spisula solidissima), the yellowish, slightly oblong clams that are abundant in Shinnecock Bay and some other East End waters, but too fragile for commercial harvesting, have a large, uniform foot that is prized for sashimi–even though they are also widely used for bait.

During Eat Drink Local, Bay Burger in Sag Harbor is offering a fried clam roll paired with a Greenport’s Harbor ale for $13. Tribeca Grill is rolling out a special of Manhattan clam chowder and fried clams. Both Savoy in SoHo and DuMont in Williamsburg settled on clams with chorizo. Ici in Fort Greene is doing clams casino. Braeburn in the West Village is doing homemade linguini with clams in a clam broth. Pete’s Downtown in DUMBO is offering linguini and clams, which comes with a free glass of rose or riesling from Millbrook VineyardsHearth is hitting two ingredients of the day with its clams and cauliflower chowder, paired with Fire Island Beer Company’s IPA. Dizzy Club Coca Cola hits a trifecta of ingredients with its Wild Hive Farm Cornmeal Dusted Fried Clams and Katchkie Farm Squash Spheres.

Littlenecks on the half shell. Photograph by Paul Israel, paulisrael.com

But you should also cook with clams. Clam pie is just one option for this bivalve that’s been bolstering the region’s cooking canon for millenia. Once you have acquired your clams, here are a few preparations to consider, in order of increasing difficulty.

1. One of my favorite, and simplest, clam recipes is to throw a couple dozen clams in a pot along with olive oil, chili peppers, and a splash of white wine (perhaps some dry New York riesling) and steam until the mollusks hinge open. Not unlike the clams, guanciale and chilis dish that Resto is offering for Eat Drink Local Week.

2. You can always shuck and slurp. The effort regularly summoned to eat a raw clam, against the constant risk of self-mutilation, is the best proof of the pleasure that lies within. (Here’s a decent how-to-shuck video from Legal Seafood. Practice makes perfect.)

3. If you really want to honor this humble ingredient, you might shuck a few dozen and use the resulting meat and juice in that clam pie, which food historian Sandy Oliver suggests is “a micro-regional dish,” a dish that crops up with more verve and diversity in certain places based not just on local preferences and available ingredients, but also self-perpetuating tradition. The center of clam pie diversity is the Bonacker community of East Hampton, the offspring of the region’s first settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland in the 1600s, and the Sagaponack writer Peter Matthiessen, who, by his own account, has eaten many clam pies, says “there is even a dish, if you believe it, called rhubarb and clam pie,” that he learned from an Amagansett fisherman. The recipe is very versitile and locals talk of adding sausage, tomatoes, peppers and more. Or, consider adding cauliflower, squash, chopped up duck, or other in-season ingredients.

Steamer clams waiting to be dipped and gobbled. Photograph by Paul Israel, paulisrael.com

Popular clam pie recipes have been published in the New York Herald Tribune, Ladies’ Home Journal, Gastronomica and beyond. And even Gotham residents have been known to come under the dish’s spell. In a particularly infamous case, “a New York dowager, summer resident in East Hampton since childhood, was once presented with a clam pie at her New York home. The cook was told to warm the pie in the oven. Later she reported, ‘I never had a chance to get it warmed through. Her teeth wuz waterin’!’”

For your clam day consideration, here’s a recipe from 1948, attributed to Mrs. N.H. Dayton:

MY GRANDMOTHER STRATTON’S HARD-SHELLED CLAM PIE

1 cup clams chopped fine
1 egg beaten well
3/4 cup milk
1/8 cup clam broth
1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
Butter
Dash of pepper

Mix well and bake between two crusts for about 1 hour with temperature at 350°.
Cream sauce may be served with it, if desired.

From Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton 300th Anniversary Cookbook, 1648-1948 (East Hampton, NY, 1948)

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.