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Rhody Reads: The Great Clam Cake and Fritter Guide

Emily Goodman: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.

[music]

[00:00:56]

Emily: I am your host, Emily Goodman from the Rhody Radio team, and I'm joined today with Carolyn Wyman, the author of eight food books, including delicacies such as Chocolate Chip Cookies, Jello, and Spam. Most recently, she authored an ode to the East Coast titled The Great Clam Cake and Fritter Guide, Why We Love Them, How to Make Them, and Where to Find Them From Maine to Virginia, which you can request right now from your local library.

The book features profiles on some of the best restaurants and shacks along the coast, holds history, stories, trivia, and recipes. It's truly clam-packed from cover to cover. Carolyn, thank you so much for being here.

Carolyn Wyman: Glad to be here.

Emily: All right. You have written a book that is all about clam cakes, but what about clam chowder? What's the perfect clam chowder to you? You don't have to name names but what makes a great clam chowder for you?

Carolyn: Well, obviously, clam cakes and chowder go together like peanut butter and jelly. I have a prejudice towards chowder that goes well with clam cakes and because clam cakes are such an indulgent food, fatty, and I think that the simpler the chowder, the better. The classic Rhode Island clear clam chowder, I think, is the perfect pairing. As far as if you're asking where you can get that, most shacks have that. Out-of-towners have a [00:02:00] problem a lot of times with the clear chowder because of the looks, it's not really Instagram-friendly. It really looks almost gray.

There's a famous food writer, Raymond Sokolov. He said that the simplicity of clam chowder-- he was talking about clam chatter in general, but I think the Rhode Island style applies-- Is its hallmark and genius. That's true, I think, of New England foods in general, including clam cakes that nowadays there's a lot of flavorful ethnic cuisines that people love, but if you grew up in Rhode Island like I did, or grew up in New England, the simple foods, well done is just-- I can really appreciate that, and I think more people need to appreciate it.

There is a big, as you probably know, controversy about the Rhode Island chowder. It's true Rhode Island chowder is plain, and some people talk about tomato being in there. That's a huge controversy if anyone says Rhode Island chowder does not have tomato. In fact, historically, I found out as part of my research and also just my personal research being an older person who grew up in Rhode Island, that the amusement parks, Rocky Point Crescent Park, their chowders did have tomato.

That harkens way back to Crescent Park being founded by a guy named George Boyden. He had one of the very first of the resorts on Narragansett Bay, and he had tomato in there. It's not heresy to say I'm a Rhode Island, and I like tomato in my chowder. I don't, I'd rather have it plain.

Emily: That's very kind of you, Carolyn.

[laughter]

[00:04:00]

Emily: All right. Your book is also all about clams which we'll talk about later, whether they are actually in your clam cakes. Is there a type of seafood that you won't eat or that freaks you out?

Carolyn: Again, growing up in New England, I ate a lot of fish, even more than I do now. I remember as a kid eating swordfish, which my mother was not-- she was kind of cheap, and now I think about, wow, we were eating swordfish? That's expensive now. Clams, I remember going to Howard Johnson's for my 8th grade graduation. That's where I wanted to go and get fried clams.

Of course, then they had no bellies in it. It was only later that I discovered the joy, the incredible flavor that's in the bellies of the clams. I don't eat sushi. I guess, I would say I'm afraid of sushi maybe more because I'm concerned about [chuckles] whether it's fresh. I'll even have anchovies. Some people are like, "Oh, that's where I draw the line." I have a tomato spaghetti I make with just a little bit of anchovy. You don't even know it's in there. It gives it a tremendous amount of depth and flavor. I love shad. Connecticut River shad.

Emily: A woman of the sea.

Carolyn: [laughs] Right, yes.

Emily: Your bio also says that, when you were 10 years old, you participated in an all-you-can-eat chowder and clam cake feast. What was that like?

Carolyn: See, you're not old enough to know this, but that was the experience of being at Rocky Point and Crescent Park. When you went to eat [00:06:00] there, that's what it was. It was all-you-can-eat for one price. They had different types of meals. They were the same big dining halls, but you could pick. You could have a meal that was more complete, more like a regular clam bake with lobster or fish, white fish, and stuff like that.

Again, my family was a little bit cost-conscious, especially with the kids, so we just got the clam cakes and chowder. It was $0.45, I think, in the '60s or something.

Emily: Wow.

Carolyn: You sat there and you could just eat as much as you want. You stayed there as long as you wanted to keep eating. And they just had big trays and baskets of the clam cakes and big cauldrons of the chowder. It wasn't just a one-time thing for me. It was a recurring experience. Then, of course, then you get to go on the rides because you're there. It was a loss leader, I think, for the parks in a way to get people there, especially in the '60s, '70s, and stuff. Early on, it was different.

I mean, how could you not like clam cakes? That's your day. You get to go to the amusement park and they were both-- Rocky Point is on the water. They had a saltwater swimming pool. It was just so much fun and so tasty.

Emily: Yeah, that sounds it. Although it does sound a little nerve-wracking, to me, to eat all-I-can-eat in clam cakes and chowder and then go on a ride [laughs] without a break.

Carolyn: Yes, exactly. Actually, in my research, there was a guy, he was talking about the red clam chowder. He said his memories of the clam chowder were really from the walls of the Tilt-A-Whirl [00:08:00] because the kids ate a little too much and didn't stay with them.

Emily: That's great. Let's get into the book a little bit. When did you first get the idea to write a book about clam cakes and fritters?

Carolyn: Well, as you said, I've written a number of other food books, but it wasn't really until I'd written books on spam and chocolate chip cookies and Philadelphia Cheesesteak that I remembered that other fun fatty food of my youth that was just as interesting and has a lot of the elements you need for a great book, like the history. You need something to write about besides just--

At least for me, I don't just do recipe books. I want history. It's got to be popular, and it's got to be fun. For me, I really love that too. Nutritionally naughty foods tend to be fun, especially, historic, because now, it's like, well, we're supposed to be eating nutritionally correct things. Even people that love clam cakes in Rhode Island, I think there is that element of, you loved, but affectionately deride it because they know it's bad for them.

Emily: What else can people look forward to in the book? You've talked a little bit about the different elements, but what can they really find there?

Carolyn: Basically, I like to think it's a complete guidebook to clam cakes. With history, recipes, guides to the best clam cake-making shacks [00:10:00] and restaurants as well as event and artistic tributes to the foods, I try to cover all that. There's a clam cake song and references to it on Family Guy and all sorts of things.

Emily: I can attest. It seems like every page has something new to discover as you flip through the book. What is the difference between a clam cake and a fritter, or are they in fact the same thing?

Carolyn: I think the terms-- again, you're hitting on a controversial thing with a lot of Rhode Islanders or at least-- because if somebody goes into a restaurant or clam shack in Rhode Island, and you hear them order clam fritters, if you're me, you'd think to yourself, "Oh, this is a know-nothing outsider." They're from Connecticut. They're from Massachusetts or somewhere else.

In fact, again, this is part of what I found out working on my book, historically, those terms were used almost interchangeably, especially very early on in places as late as Crescent Park in the '70s. Aunt Carrie's, clam cake stalwart, was using the term "clam fritter" on their menus. Both those places, actually, I found a few menus where they were using them for the same food on the same menus almost interchangeably. It's not heresy to call them a clam fritter.

Yes, I guess, traditionally a fritter, if you look at a cookbook or something, they would say it's deep-fried and more like a ball, and a cake would be like a Johnny Cake, flat not as leavened that is puffy. Again, those rules don't-- [00:12:00] People don't seem to follow those rules when they actually are developing a love for a food where they live.

Actually, I think we might want to get into this is the different clam cakes, even though I think a lot of Rhode Islanders think they're the only ones that love clam cakes, there are other versions of clam cakes and fritters in Maine and in Virginia. Not everywhere in the country, but these very specific places.

In Maine, it is like a patty, but they call it a clam cake. Nobody calls it a fritter there, even though it's more flat, and it's actually like a crab cake. I would say that's the closest thing. The good ones inside are almost like a soufflé. They have some egg in the batter. Then, in Virginia, they are like a pancake literally. They're very similar to a pancake griddled on a stove top, but like the Maine, a lot more clam in them than Rhode Island clam cakes, chock-full of clams.

They use down south the whole clams, so including the bellies, so a whole lot of clam flavor. I just was down there actually at the Chincoteague Fireman's Carnival, which is-- They serve them a lot at these festivals and carnivals and things. Most people at home for the Virginia fritter, they just cook them on the grill. They might put more fat than we would in a pancake.

There at the festivals, they actually deep fry them. Wow. If you like clam cakes here, you would them love probably because if you like-- well, there's that, if you really [00:14:00] like clams. Some people say the round clam cake is like-- for people who don't like seafood. Actually, one restaurant guy actually said that to me, or people who don't really like clam because there's so little clam in them often. The clam that's in them is not the belly so it's very mild clam flavor.

Emily: That sounds like I would like the Virginia clam cakes because that's a complaint that I have had in my life, is that when I eat a clam cake, it's just batter. I really want there to be a lot more clam in it. Very interesting.

Carolyn: Well, I have to defend also-- I could take this opportunity to defend the restaurant owners who are constantly getting that complaint, "You're not putting any clam in here," because you're chewing, you get to the point of the end where you're eating your clam cake, and you want to have that little chewiness pleasant kind of where you're chewing on the actual clam, and you don't get much of that. I think the most, if not the most interesting thing, certainly one of the most important things I found out doing my book was that they, in a lot of cases, are not lying to us.

They're actually putting more clam in than you realize. What happens is the clams are wet. When this batter with the clam and it hits the hot fat, those little clams actually shoot out to the outside to the crust of the clam cake. You see those little black specks on clam cakes, those are actually burnt pieces of clam. Probably they still taste somewhat like clam, but I think you're not really getting the full flavor because they burn off well. I was like, "Okay, I got to solve this problem."

I called [00:16:00] this guy who's written a bunch of books, Rick Browne, about frying. He said, "Well, I think you should take the-- Before you put the clam into the clam cake, you coat it with some flour to cut down on that, to give it some friction so it doesn't do that." I did test that doing a recipe, and it worked. My book has this billion-thousand-dollar tip for restaurant owners who want to spend $22 and buy the book or listen to the podcast now.

[laughter]

Emily: Perfect either way. I was thinking about, when you were saying that too, that if you're eating clam cakes and fritters, as one might say you're meant to do with a cup of chowder, you're also going to get that clam flavor from dipping your clam cake or fritter into your chowder and scooping it that way.

Carolyn: Right. Coming at you from all sides.

Emily: There you go. [laughs]

Carolyn: That's what you want.

Emily: Do we know who the first people were to make clam cakes? Did you discover that in your research?

Carolyn: Well, indigenous peoples liked clams and cooked with them, but nobody seems to think they fried them or put them in dough or anything like that. That came much later. Actually, it arose from this resort around Narragansett Bay in the Victorian era between the mid-1800s and the late-1800s. Basically, we couldn't just hop on planes and everybody go to Disney World. We had to vacation right where we were.

At that time early on, it was steamboats-- first, [00:18:00] it was just people going in rowboats or walking to the shore, but later on, the steamboats brought people from Providence to far resorts in what we think "far" in East Providence or Warwick right around the Bay. At one point by the mid to late 1800s, there were 25 of these resorts, and most of them having clam bakes.

A clam bake, as you know, is steamed on the beach and not a precise thing. Not like you cook on your stove, and then you can put 375° and you know it's going to be 370°. These bakes sometimes didn't cook up as fast as they thought. They needed something to basically keep people-- rumbling stomachs from rumbling before the main event happened. That's when clam cakes came about.

As to who got the idea and all that, I couldn't find any sources that really said it. There were some newspaper stories that were saying, "Oh, it was first at Fields Point," or, "Oh, it was first at a different resort, Butter Woods." I mean, it's a good idea, right, because it's certainly filling.

Emily: Absolutely.

Carolyn: It's not something you have to steam in the bake. I think one of the reasons that this clam-flavored, basically donut hole, survived into current times is because there were a couple of [00:20:00] those resorts that lasted a really long time, specifically Crescent Park and Rocky Point. Crescent Park lasted till 1977 and Rocky Point till '96. It continued that tradition into another generation.

Then, of course, the restaurants and stands also helped. The '20s, the early restaurants like Aunt Carrie's, George's, Iggy's, they all have roots in roadside stands that started when the automobile took over from those steamboats and trolleys that basically ended the other resorts on the Bay anyway.

Emily: Oh, very interesting. What was your research process like?

Carolyn: Well, my background is as a newspaper reporter originally. You need to do in-person research for a lot of this, certainly the stands. I'm not going to just read what other people wrote. I want to go there, I want to meet the people. I want to try the clam cakes. I think a lot of it, too, is you don't have to be a reporter to do this. People go to restaurants and they just take whatever they get. I ask, "Well, what kind of clam are you using?" Or, "What are you frying it in?" You find out things. They're really interesting.

There are some stands, not a lot, but some of them still using, for instance, lard in cooking up the clam cakes. Now, they don't advertise this because it's like, "Oh, this is--" People would be very-- health thing and all that, but hey, how many times are you going to a clam shack a summer? [00:22:00] I don't know. Working on this book, I went a bunch of times, but normally, you're not going every day. It's a treat, so why not. Lard, man, in some cases they almost didn't have to tell me they used lard because they were so good. There's nothing better but fried food. Allie's Donuts, the same thing.

Part of it was in person, but I certainly used libraries a lot. I live in Philly now, so my local librarian got me interlibrary loan, all sorts of books from Rhode Island libraries, obscure older books about the shore resorts and Rick Brown's frying books that are out of print. You can get anything for free. Everybody should be doing that.

The history rooms of the Providence and North Kingstown libraries were really especially important to the history chapter of my book, the first chapter. At those places I got to peruse primary source materials like travel guides and community cookbooks. I could see how these resorts were regarded at the time. Also, with the cookbooks, I was able to actually check out when clam cakes began showing up in those cookbooks and when their popularity increased.

The Providence Library especially has an extensive collection of photographs and postcards and stuff. It's all been digitalized and available online to anyone to use on your website or in teaching. It's an incredibly great resource.

I also used a lot of databases, especially newspaper ones and cookbook ones on the internet. On my earlier books, [00:24:00] it's really interesting how different the process of researching is now because I almost don't want to think about having to rewrite some of those earlier books with the resources that are available now, how many primary source like newspapers.

You can read what the people were reading at the time. When I'm talking about the steamboats and taking people to these resorts, you can see the ads. You can see how popular they were, how many companies were doing it, and where they were taking people because you can see the schedules. It's a dream and a nightmare for a researcher, I guess.

Michigan State has a cookbook archive called Feeding America, and that's great to see. When did clam cakes get into cookbooks, and it actually was really after they were in-- usually, you think of older foods was a home food and then restaurants adopted, but no, in the case of clam cakes, it was a commercial food that home chefs they would write into the recipe swap columns and say, "Give me a recipe for this?" That's all stuff you can find out really only through libraries and archival stuff.

Emily: I imagine that you ate a lot of fritters in your time. What do you think that count is?

Carolyn: Wow. It's hard to say. Certainly, because it was over basically two pandemic summers I researched this. Certainly, more than 100, maybe less than 200 because even though as they're selling them mostly six, a half dozen or a dozen. I wasn't eating a dozen, even the good ones because [00:26:00] I wanted to be alive at the end of the project. [chuckles]

I try to be very careful about when I'm researching, especially if I'm going to five or six stands in one day. You really just have to eat only one or unless you really need to figure something out, [chuckles] but you don't need to eat a lot to enjoy it.

Emily: You can almost tell a good one in the first bite, right?

Carolyn: Oh, yes. Totally. Totally.

Emily: There's 50 clam shacks that you profile in the book, and that's a lot of people and places that you've been. Do you have a favorite story from those places?

Carolyn: Yes, there's lots. There's just a lot of interesting stories. Aunt Carrie's obviously is a famous one and dates back to the 1920 actually, it was just a stand. Then the building that they're in now is from 1924, same family doing it. The problem with Carrie's, and we're getting towards the end of the summer here, is that they're not a year-round. They do stay open weekends for a while.

There's a surprising number more so than when I was growing up in Rhode Island of restaurants that have clam cakes year-round. That's a really good thing. Blount is another one on the other side of the Bay that started out. They were oyster and then clam harvesters. For years, that company provided [00:28:00] clams to soup makers like Campbell's.

Well, now they keep morphing into what the business is. Now, they are America's largest maker of refrigerated soups. They make clam chowders as part of that. They have their Blount market year-round in Warren as a tribute to their roots. I think they test some of the soups there and stuff too. I think that's an interesting story because I asked them like, "Well, why are you bothering with--" They have a seasonal one on the water too.

It's like, this huge company, why bother? It's really more the president, his family, and he's like, "I love clams shacks and this is part of our heritage," that he doesn't want to lose. That's a place to go because they're obviously doing it for important reasons, heart reasons. Captain Jack's is a great place under the radar near East Matunuck State Beach. There's a very popular upscale restaurant, the oyster bar right across the street from them that has lines and valet parking and everything on the right, kind of fancy.

Right across the street, you've got what I think is more to my liking, just a clam restaurant as comfortable as an old boat shoe. I'm not sure it's still up, but when I was there doing my research, they had a sign up. It said, "Shirts and shoes required." I did not see that in too many-- even shacks that I went to or restaurants, it's like, "They got to make that point." They're right on the salt marsh in the back, [00:30:00] beautiful view that you don't see from the [inaudible 00:30:02] You don't realize.

In fact, the cover of my book, that's the main picture, picture of some of their great clam cakes. They just know how to do it. Great flavor, but a simple menu. It's interesting, the fancy restaurants in Rhode Island, even the seafood ones do not have clam cakes. It's almost like a class thing or something. Well, if that's a class thing, then count me among [laughs] the lower classes, because there's nothing better to me in the summer.

Emily: As you're talking about Blount being this big nationwide company that makes soups and all these other clam products, it reminds me that, in the book, you mentioned that there aren't really big chains. These big restaurants, they're not capitalizing on clam cakes. Why do you think that is?

Carolyn: I think it really has to do with the clams, actually. I think clams are a real barrier for people, especially people not from New England. I was telling my friends in Philadelphia the project I was working on, and they're like, "Wait a minute, clam-flavored donut holes? No, thanks." Even in Maine, you think tradition of eating clams and stuff.

There's a company called Harmon's that makes frozen clam cakes of their style, the patty style, that's sold to restaurants but also in supermarkets. Well, they started recently making crab cakes as well, and they make more money on them. Yes, it's sort of like, think about it. What [00:32:00] sells at a lot of these clams shacks now is not necessarily the whole clams with bellies or the clam cakes, but the lobster rolls, the crab cakes, and the crab tacos. You know what I mean?

I don't want to denigrate the younger generation, but this is the clam cake, and the clams is part of our heritage. If we're not going to eat them, nobody is. If we don't eat them, they're going to go the way of fried eel, which was another thing they had at the clam bakes in the early days. [chuckles]

Emily: Interesting. I didn't know that.

Carolyn: Yes. Also, shrimp, salmon, those are the best-selling fish in America. Clams are for a heartier-- people, in a way, again, the trend is more flavor. Well, try a clam with a belly if you want flavor, there's nothing with more flavor than that.

Emily: I'll agree with you. I do like a good full bellied clam dipped in butter. Perfect in the summer.

Carolyn: Yes.

Emily: What do you think is the most interesting thing that you learned about clam cakes in your research process?

Carolyn: Well, I don't know about interesting. To me, it's all interesting. There were lots of things that surprised me. They predated fried clams. Clam cakes came first. That surprised me because, when I was growing up, Rhode Island, obviously clam cakes are huge, but fried clam also huge in Southern New England.

I had assumed, maybe because Howard Johnson's made fried clam so popular, that it was an [00:34:00] earlier dish, but not true. Clam cakes were mid-1800s, and fried clams didn't really become popular until turn of the century. That was interesting. Just the fact that there are other places that like some kind fried clam thing, cakes or fritters, I didn't know that. Growing up in Rhode Island, I thought we were the only people.

It's interesting, because like at Woodman's in Essex, Mass which is getting up there, they say-- people are like-- they go, "Well, what do you have here?" They're actually selling the Rhode Island style, but it's the only dish that they actually put out. They have a sample of it because a lot of people-- either they don't know what it is at all because it's so far from Rhode Island, or they think it's the main style.

They have little cups to show you the sizes of all their other products, but for the clam cakes, they actually have [chuckles] a model of it sitting right there you can look at.

Emily: Interesting. Okay. I think we're at our penultimate question.

Carolyn: Okay.

Emily: What are you hoping that people get out of reading this book?

Carolyn: Yes. I really hope that they discover some new restaurants or shacks that they didn't know about that have great clam cakes and great seafood in general, and even the places that they already know about, I'm hoping they'll learn and appreciate them more because they're going to learn more about them and use that information when they order.

For instance, Champlin's is one of the places I write about, and you got to get the clam cakes of course because you bought a clam cake book. If you're going to have fish and chip too, [00:36:00] you probably should get the flounder. You get a choice, flounder or haddock. Well, they told me, you get the flounder-- they get the flounder right there. You're sitting there and there are the boats. That's the beauty of that place

The flounder is from Galilee, whereas the haddock they get from New Bedford. Not that it's no good, but why not get what's hours away from being caught? Stuff like that. Also, there's the recipes and the tips on making because it's not a complicated dish, but it is frying. With simple dishes, it's more important that you really do all the details right.

I hope that this book will give them those instructions and the courage and the motivation to really try making your own clam cakes because it's a fried food coming hot out of the fryer later. When you take it out, there's nothing better, nothing better. I'm not an expert fryer, but the ones I made rivaled the best I got at any stand. She says immodestly, but it really is. No, it's the freshness of a fried food.

Emily: Sure. Now, people can use your very hot billion-dollar tip, flour your clams before you put them in-

Carolyn: Exactly.

Emily: -and you'll have the best clam fritters ever. We have one final question for you, not related to clams today, but we'd like to know, as a library podcast, what are you currently reading and who would you recommend it to?

Carolyn: Well, I'm in a number of book groups. I just read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, [00:38:00] English novelist, funny, sad. It's strong stuff. Only 200 pages, which I really admire how much she packs in there. She's like a little like Jane Austin, I would say, in terms of having the wit and stuff.

It's really off-topic, really. I would like to just mention, since I'm a big reader, when I start to write my books, I bring my favorite food writers. I read them. I read them over. I read them while I'm writing because I want to be inspired by how well they write. I love Calvin Trillin who writes about food. I love Mary Roach who doesn't write about food, but funny. Both these people were funny and non-fiction.

She's taking, like I am, facts but looking at the most interesting, hopefully, I don't want to raise myself to the level of Mary Roach, but worth reading definitely. Just some of the great, cookbook writers, a lot of people today grab recipes off the internet. Good luck to you, but some of these cookbook writers, they're testing all the recipes, and you can count on them.

Like Dorie Greenspan, I wrote my Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, she's the goddess of cookies as far as I'm concerned. David Liebowitz is another one who does great desserts. In my book I quote-- like Jasper White, if people are looking for a local seafood expert, he's got cookbook out there that are tremendous. He's got a great recipe for clam cakes I include in my book that has some corn in it. [00:40:00] He has his own books that are definitely worth checking out.

Emily: Great. Thank you. Very many hot tips from you today, Carolyn. Thank you so much. I hope this has inspired some people to either go purchase or borrow The Great Clam Cake and Fritter Guide Why We Love Them, How To Make Them, and Where To Find Them from Maine to Virginia. Carolyn, thank you so much for being here.

Carolyn: Thanks for having me.

[music]

Emily: Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the book and is brought to you by library staff and community members all around the ocean state. This episode was made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders.

You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook and Instagram. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and rate or review us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to help us reach more Rhode Islanders.

[music]

[00:41:27] [END OF AUDIO]


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