Summer's beloved harbinger - The Clamcake
If you’ve ever wondered about what happens to those brilliant kids who do so well in the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon, here’s some news about one of them: David Norton Stone, Hendricken, ’84; went to Yale; went to law school; took a job in New York City; started obsessing about food from his hometown; wrote a book called, “Clamcake Summer: One Man Eats Every Clamcake In Rhode Island (Or Dies Frying).”
If you can forgive the dreadful pun in the title, you can have some fun with Stone’s extended essay on the clamcake. It’s well researched and suffused with gentle humor and nostalgia.
“I actually bought a house in Warwick so I could come home on weekends and be able to get clamcakes,” Stone said last week.
He was kidding, of course, but not entirely.
Living away from Rhode Island does make you pine for the simple pleasure of being understood in a restaurant. Asking for a stuffed quahog in some cities will be futile. Aside from having to explain what it is, you’re just not going to get what you are looking for.
“You don’t get too much [white] chowder in New York,” said Stone. “Unless you specify, you get red. Rocky Point had red chowder but you had to ask for red chowder.”
As for the Galilee clear chowder that so many Rhode Islanders rave about, that’s rare anywhere outside Galilee. But it is clamcakes, according to Stone, that require the most explanation to outlanders.
“When you mention clamcakes, most people outside of Rhode Island think they are like crab cakes,” he said. “When you describe them to people, they say, ‘Fritters!’”
So, it is a given that the Rhode Island clamcake hasn’t attained the international status of French fries or Belgian waffles, and it is not likely that Stone’s book will move it any closer to that universal acceptance. It will, however, reward Rhode Islanders with a few side trips into the history of the clamcake that they were unaware of. In one instance, he cites Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the man posterity knows as the man who told Emily Dickinson to not bother publishing her poems, for an even more egregious offense: badmouthing the shore dinner in 1871:
“The first course is baked clams, with corn and drawn butter. The second is clam chowder. The third course consists of baked fish, with a sort of raw Creole sauce made of tomatoes and cucumbers served with white and brown bread. Finally, for dessert, come the clamcakes…”
“Telling Emily Dickinson not to publish was strike one against Tom in my book,” writes Stone. “Strike two is that he writes an article for Scribner’s Monthly telling the world that he hopes he never has to eat a second shore dinner.”
Higginson does get credit for his culinary insight into Rhode Island culture. Stone quotes him, saying, “I have noticed with every native Rhode Islander there is a certain tremulous tenderness of voice in speaking of them, such as a stranger never can learn; to appreciate their delights, you must have been ‘born to the purple,’ or at least by the purple sea. I do not know why oysters are called ‘natives’ in England, but the preeminent native of Rhode Island is the clam.”
No one is surprised to learn that Stone’s favorite book is “Moby Dick.” In fact, his prose has more than a hint of Melvillian stateliness and formality that seems a bit preposterous for a book about the lowly clam but it is all part of the fun. But the book describes where to go for exceptional clamcakes and some people may be surprised that the May Breakfast at the Oaklawn Baptist Church in Cranston is on the top of the list. So too, is the Baptist church in Wickford, and the Columban Fathers in Bristol, just in case you think the Baptists have a monopoly on clamcake truth.
Inevitably, the book gets around to Rocky Point and up to date. Stone, who worked at Rocky Point to help pay for school, describes a “Rocky Point For All” rally at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in the fall of 2010. The event that drew about 400 people was designed to promote the bond issue to buy the remaining 82 acres of the park.
“Out front, there are old cars from the haunted house ride…The Warwick Historical Society displays an incredible selection of Rocky Point-abilia, including a giant slotted spoon, several feet long.
‘I remember that spoon,’ a woman tells me. ‘They used it to take the clamcakes out of the oil.’
Someone from the society corrects her.
‘Actually, that spoon was for the chowder. They used it to remove the potatoes to test whether they were cooked through or not.’ That may be the official line, but my new friend and I agree that anything that big and grand must have been for the clamcakes.”
Stone writes that the best thing about the rally is that they are serving clamcakes in old Rocky Point bags. Stone “bribes” the organizer with a generous donation and walks out with about a hundred.
“My own Rocky Point clamcake museum has begun,” he wrote.
Stone does offer recipes for clamcakes, but this is really not a cookbook. This is an homage to simple pleasures.
“A clamcake is best for only that brief moment when the danger of its being too hot to eat passes, and its skin cools enough to harden but before the moisture in the cake softens it. A clamcake is fickle, like the summer weather in New England. But when a clamcake or a summer day is just right, you have lived, and when both of those things happen at the same time, you will never be the same.”
But, after the tangential tour of clamcake history, Stone gets less facetious and begins to reflect on what his obsession with clamcakes is really about. He’s homesick.
“Then I have an epiphany. It is fine to slow down. I now know that clamcakes are not nearing extinction and they don’t need me to save them. In Rhode Island, their allure is as powerful as ever. Eating clamcakes does not require gorging myself. Rather it is about the pleasure of recurrence, the joy of doing something when the season for it arrives. Eating clamcakes in the summertime is one of those annual traditions, rituals and pastimes that make us happy to be alive at a precise spot on the calendar year after year. That is why I love them, and why others do as well. I vow that next year will just be a regular summer, when clamcakes are just one of the many recurrent pleasures of the season. And I know that I will enjoy the few clamcakes that I do eat just as much as the many I ate
“Clamcake Summer” is available at Amazon.com, or visit it on Facebook for more ways buy it.