Every summer at clam shacks in New England, the classic debate rises: fried clam strips or fried clam bellies? In my opinion, the two should not be compared. These sweet and salty fried treats are not even products from the same clam. The popular option is to use whole bellies, which come from the Eastern shores and are known as steamers, soft-shells, or piss clams. The less popular option, strips, are cut from a larger hard shell clam, the Atlantic surf clam. Both are an amazing sea treat, but I think the surf clam deserves some more attention.
The Atlantic Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima) is a large, hard shell clam that is found in large numbers along the coast of the Northeast and primarily harvested in New England. They are triangle-shaped measuring on average six inches across at the time of optimal harvest. Their weight at this size is about two pounds making them one of the largest clams we eat. Most of these landings occur in the Nantucket Shoals where annual quotas remain around 3 million pounds. These landings are primarily used for processed products with very little sold as live product to the end consumer. Processed products include clam juice, clam strips, minced clams, and the belly (viscera) used for bait or industrial use.
How surf clams are processed
The first step in the production process is to remove the meat from the shell by hand. Lines of workers remove the meat by using short, blunt knives and make quick work of the difficult process. The juice released in this process is strained, packed, and frozen for use as a base in sauces and soups. Next, the meat is rinsed of any sand or grit, and a quick burst of heat removes any membranes or connective tissues that are not fit for consumption. The majority of the viscera, or belly, is removed and discarded, or saved for bait. The siphon, the mantle (or strap), the two adductors, and the foot are chopped and sold as minced clams. These pieces are usually about the size of a dime and stored back in their own juice in plastic containers. This product is used as a base for soups and chowders as well as an ingredient in items like stuffed clams and croquettes. The foot, if not used for minced, will be cut lengthwise and sold as the clam strip.
The emergence of the clam strip
The clam strip is a relatively new way to use the surf clam. It was created for a business in the 1950s: Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. The famous orange and turquoise roadside respite was well known for their ice cream and quick and eat food, but the one thing they had people clamoring for was their fried clam plate. During that time, soft shell clams were increasingly scarce and the demand for fried clams was high. The restaurant’s source for clams was a company by the name of Saffron Brothers, a family business that started in the early 1940s by digging soft shell clams in Ipswich, MA. Not wanting to lose the business, the Saffron Brothers came up with the idea of using a clam that was readily available and less expensive to harvest. The brothers armed boats with hydraulic dredges, pulling up the large clams in droves. They processed them and sent them to the restaurant and were received with open arms. A new product was born and a New England staple emerged: Howard Johnson’s Tendersweet Clams. Soon, establishments up and down the Eastern Seaboard were using and frying the strips, hoping to capitalize off the acclaim. Since then, it has remained a staple in New England and enjoyed by many throughout the year.
Uses in fine dining
Surf clams can also be found on high-end sushi menus, commonly known as Giant Clam (Hokkigai). Often, the foot will be steamed, sliced lengthwise, and served on rice as nigiri. The tip of the foot will turn a bright pink or red, making it a standout among the tuna and salmon. Another way this clam can be used is in a raw preparation by using more than just the foot. By separating the parts of the clam normally used for minced clams, careful slicing can turn them into a high-end dish. The texture and flavor profile are similar to geoduck, yet mild and versatile enough for a large number of applications. Chef Brian Young of The Emory in Boston uses surf clams as a vessel for delicate and high-end ingredients. He thinks that all of the extra work to clean them is well worth it. On the right, you can see a dish that he created for a dinner at the James Beard house this past winter. The surf clam is sliced thinly and served raw with cultured cream, caviar, mizuna, and potato chips dusted with dried Italian truffles. This surf clam dish is certainly a whole other world from a fried clam basket or Striped Bass bait.
Curious about how to use these clams in your kitchen? Here’s a quick video on how to break them down and a recipe for a quick and easy dish inspired by spring.
*As this piece was in production, an ordinance was put in place on April 9th, closing Nantucket Shoals for surf clam harvest until further notice. Since this is the largest area of harvest in the Northeast, it is hard to say exactly how the industry will change, but we are waiting on more updated information. Stay with us as we navigate this closure and find out more on the future of the East’s most underappreciated clam.