In most of the United States, meaning anywhere west of I-95 and south of Delaware, fried clams are rarely a religious experience. That’s because they’re not fried clams — not really. They’re fried clam strips: chewy little ribbons of the pink “foot” of the Atlantic surf clam.
A real fried clam — whose rich history and iconic status I recount in my new book about American food — is a belly clam. A belly clam, aka the soft-shell clam or Mya arenaria, is New England thing, a favored food of Mass-holes and Mainers.
They are worth traveling to the Northeastern tip of the country for, in my opinion. Like the fat fried Gulf Coast oysters I grew up eating with my family in Louisiana, a fried whole belly clam has presence. Clam bellies are nutty and briny and sweet, they are juicy and squirt-ey, and they possess an earthy funk that is a gift from the mud they call home. This is accentuated when they’re fried in lard, as the old-fashioned recipes — there’s a good one at the end of this page — often recommend.
I didn’t include this recipe in my book for what I thought was a good reason: Soft-shell clams are essentially an endangered species.
You’ve probably read the story about the birds? You know, how we’ve lost 3 billion of them over the past 50 years because of climate change? I discovered you could write the same kind of thing about soft-shell clams, pretty much. The species are still around for the amateur or small operation, but the big hauls that made them famous during the previous two centuries? Those are long gone.
Since 1980, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, commercial landings of soft-shells from Maine to North Carolina have declined by 66 percent. Meanwhile, other wild stocks of estuarine* bivalves like oysters, littlenecks, and scallops have faced similar downward trajectories. (FYI, a littleneck, like most eastern hard-shell clams, are the same species, or Mercenaria mercenaria. They just have different names — littlenecks, quahogs, top necks, and cherrystones — depending on their size or location.)