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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.10.09

We Were Only in it for the Fried Clams

Food Memoir


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My father was a home builder in Post -WWII America. His turf: Long Island, the spit of land running eastward from New York City for 150 miles out to Montauk Point. Formerly the exclusive domain of truck farmers and the Great Gatsby, “the Island”, with its Levittown (immortalized by Pete Seeger as “little boxes”), was destined to be the quintessential example of the banality of suburban culture. And while my father was busy draining the city of post-war families fleeing crowded conditions in Brooklyn and the Bronx, we lived in a relatively dense post-war urban setting in Queens.

The neighborhood was host to the finest examples of the emerging “post-attractive” school. The major aesthetic touchstones were drab landscapes, forbidding Catholic Churches, such as the infamous St. Nicholas Tolentine (where the playground was more like the Marine Corp training facility at Parris Island than Sesame Street), a number-named public school, a one-story strip of commercial properties every ten blocks along Union Turnpike, and a garish new conservative synagogue, appropriately named a “Jewish center” in keeping with the slow creep of assimilation

The family homestead was a post-attractive standard, an attached house that with some design touches might have squeaked through as a row house or even better, a townhouse. This nomenclature, however, was restricted to Manhattan and later in the 70’s, to certain gentrified areas in Brooklyn. In Queens, you got stuck with “attached”: housing.

With its lack of garret rooms, coffee houses, crazed painters, delusional poets, and lively, hyper-intellectual street-side discourse, my mother found the neighborhood culturally stifling. She wanted to get us to Manhattan.

My father, a man with a weak bladder, needed that like a hole in the head. As it was, he spent the better part of life behind the wheel of a car driving to and from de eyeland. Many a day, his car would round the corner, screech to a halt in a parking spot and he’d sprint his heavy set frame down the street, often right past my brother and me to the relief of our first floor “powder room”. My brother once tried to ambush him by getting to the powder room first, only to find out that Abraham wasn’t the only nice Jewish man willing to sacrifice his son to a higher force. Dad wanted to move to Long Island.

We four kids? My sisters never said much about it, though I think they longed to have a real yard, less traffic, and the idyllic world they saw at their cousins’ home in suburban Great Neck. My brother and I envisioned only one quality of life increase…no sidewalks. We loved the street life, independence from parents, exploration, but hated the sidewalks….as anyone under 25 was relegated to walking, skating, and riding a bike in this dedicated space, which was also the main thoroughfare for the elderly. We wanted the burbs. No clutter, no old folks, no sidewalks.

Around the mid-fifties, with my father doing fairly well in the building business, he and my mother decided to build a house. Having long abandoned the Manhattan fantasy (the last two episodes being a condominium behind Lincoln Center and a brownstone renovation in Chelsea), my mother caved and opted for Nassau County. She had some basic requirements: (1) The community had to be old…Revolutionary War old. (2) No subdivisions with streets named after little girls’ like Sheila, Naomi, Rhoda, or Beth. (3) The possibility of Protestants, especially Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and if we were lucky, Unitarians and (4), an abundance of civic edifices commanding superfluous vowels ….as in “olde”, “towne”, “shoppe”. In other words…WASP World.

We found a few neighborhoods like this. Some even had discrete signs of expatriate NYC middle class Jewish settlement like the “Hebrew Congregation of Westbury”, “Levine’s Pharmacy” (emphasis on the second syllable, please), and “Harbor Smoked Fish & Appetizing” .

The drill was quite simple. My father would find a piece of land in an otherwise settled area, and pull out the plans for a traditional Cape Cod design, with the requisite four bedrooms, “country” kitchen, and the topper, a wood burning fireplace. We’d fit right in. Everyone got excited.

My parents wrote a deposit check. We piled back into the station wagon, and then my dad would say, “Anybody want to go for fried clams at Howard Johnson’s on the highway? Great idea. It’s Wednesday…all you can eat!!” ….and off we’d go and celebrate with seafood. That was when Howard Johnson’s stood for all that was good about family eateries. It was first in ice cream, made terrific hotdogs on unique rolls seemed cut out of a toasted loaf of bread, and it served its specialty, fried clams in a myriad of presentations.

By Friday, a mere two days after the clam-infused euphoria, the situation got grim. Despite all the art books they owned, the Camus, Henry Steele Commager, Sandburg’s Lincoln, and the like, my parents may have only been recreational liberals. After all, they were the products of immigrant America, came of age during the depths of the Depression, were pretty much forced to leave college to contribute to their respective family incomes, found each other at the beginning of WWII and jumped straight into raising a family. No time for the City College Trotsky Society, no On the Road anecdotes, and they much preferred Molly Goldberg to Julius & Ethel Rosenberg, though they did teach us to respect all people, never to lie, cheat, hurt or humiliate others, and to go to medical school. So, on the fateful Friday we (the kids) would get the news that they were backing out, that something had jeopardized the investment, which meant more often than not a rumor that an African American brain surgeon had purchased a home a scant five miles away.

And so off we went again, from one Currier & Ives community to another, made the ritual deposit, ate the clams, and backed out before week’s end. After two rounds of this dance my kid sister sat in our booth at Howard Johnson’s in front of her heaping plate of breaded cherrystones. My sister sulked and said, “Why bother? We’re only going to get disappointed again.” It had finally hit her that my folks just couldn’t make hard decisions.

My brother, the resident family pragmatist, brought it all into focus. “You gonna eat those? If not, give ‘em to me. That way I can save a trip back to the clam bar. And don’t make a scene. They might not buy a house, but we get to keep eating these clams.”

7 Comments on "We Were Only in it for the Fried Clams"

wickedorchid

KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE HO JO’s FRIED CLAMS. My great, great uncle Chubby invented the fried clam on a drunken bet with some pals in Essex Mass. They are supposed the be fried WITH the bellies on. And are tender, delicious, sweet, juicy bites obf riney yumminess. You poor folks who have dined on clam strips all over the country are missing out.

Crikey!

Could you foodies please do a taste test between the real McCoy and the dread strips? I try to get the whole clam frid down here in FL and am usually informed that the clam bits that they fry are frozen.

Sorry about the rant. But jeez!



Anonymous

it must have been a father thing because even though my father died when I was 13 of a heart attack(not due to the fried clams, although it probably didn’t help) but stopping at HoJo’s for fried clams was one of the things he loved to do and that I remember doing with him or just stopping at HoJos’s period. One of our family rituals growing up in Connecticut was going to a place called the Clam Box where the fried clams were SOOO BIGG and appetizer choices were a glass of tomato juice, a fruit cocktail, or a shrimp cocktail. But there is nothing like the big belly of a clam fried with tartar sauce. You just don’t get those big clam bellys unless they are the real thing!!!!!!!

JB



wickedorchid

JB - Iove you for understanding my wacko rant.

LOL.

I just hate for people to never have appreciated the real McCoy.

Imagine for a moment

The only burger you ever had was from BK.

The closest thing to a Filet that you’d eaten was a Steak’um

The only Milkshake you’ve had was a yahoo.

Ah, beancounters running restaraunts…..



Barry I. Strum

Jeez…….perhaps I owe an apology and a clarification.

The story was more about food framing good times and memories than the food itself. What would a nine yr old know about one clam from another? Had the events taken place in the vicinity of Essex, Mass or the Clam Shack in Connecticut..had that been my reality, I’m sure the clams may have been better but the story would have been no different.

As a kid I gathered mussels for one use…bait. Today I buy them, prepare the lot, bring out a fresh baguette, and sit down with friends to enjoy one of life’s simple culinary pleasures.

I think I heard that Ho Jo ran off with Mrs Paul awhile back. Things change.



ab

pretty sure wickedclam, defender of the clam bellies, didn’t bother reading the article - or else is just didn’t get the gene that allows for reading comprehension (often the case on the internet).



wickedorchid

I’m telling you any mention of a strip clam… It’s like on the 3 stooges when someone said “Niagra Falls, slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch”.

I am just relieved that you’ve had the real McCoy.

I wonder if Uncle Chub himself would even care - probably after a few shots he wouldn’t.



Barry I. Strum

This is turning into a cluster shuck.

Getting ferklempt….

discuss among yourselves as a decent segue…..

Clam Chowder: New England vs. Manhattan

Discuss



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