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Great balls of clams! The clam cake turns 100

Clam cakes and Rhode Island clam chowder
Clam cakes and Rhode Island clam chowder
Photo: Julie Tremaine
Acquired TastesAcquired TastesIn Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

Here’s a controversial opinion for you, and one that nearly any dyed-in-the-wool New Englander will agree with: clam chowder is a summer food.

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You can keep your gazpacho and your pistou. The summer harvest has no place in our bowls. We like our beach food hot, creamy, and so thick you can stand a spoon in it. (Okay, that last part is an exaggeration, but the point stands.)

I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t experienced the joy of walking off the beach, covered in salt and sand, and sitting down at a clam shack for a perfect summer meal: One meant to be eaten in your bathing suit, that came in that day on the fishing boats outside the restaurant, that starts with chowder and clam cakes.

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That’s right: clam cakes.

If you haven’t eaten at a clam shack in New England—maybe you call them seafood shacks where you live—you probably haven’t encountered clam cakes before. Even if you have, it’s no guarantee. Clam cakes originated in Rhode Island and have spread a little bit throughout the region, but not completely. Even in Massachusetts or Connecticut you might find people who haven’t heard of them.

First things first: clam cakes are nothing like crab cakes, the quality of which are measured by their quantity of crab meat and lack of filler. Clam cakes are balls of fried dough studded with chopped pieces of clam, usually quahog, the large mollusk that’s the official state shellfish of Rhode Island. (If it sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because of the fictional but completely on-the-nose town of Quahog, Rhode Island, from Family Guy.) Think of them as a cousin to the hush puppy and the beignet—savory, pillowy dough that’s a little bit greasy and ready to dunk into hot soup.

Legend has it—and it’s a legend that has survived for a century, so it has to be true—that a Connecticut woman named Carrie Cooper invented the clam cake by adding chopped clams to her corn fritter recipe. She had a stand on the beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island, where her family spent summers, selling lemonade, and then eventually clam cakes and chowder, to local fishermen. Her food became so popular that eventually she opened Aunt Carrie’s, a full-fledged restaurant by the ocean in Narragansett, in 1920.

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Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett
Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett
Photo: Julie Tremaine

Today, you can’t walk into a Rhode Island clam shack—or almost any restaurant along the state’s 400 miles of coastline—without seeing clam cakes on the menu. They’re so popular that entire books have been written about them, and while Clamcake Summer author David Norton Stone writes that there is definitely evidence of clams being used in fritters dating back to the 19th century in Rhode Island, Carrie Cooper was the first person to sell them, and really, to invent the clam shack itself. It happened first in South County—the unofficial designation by locals for the area of southern Rhode Island where Narragansett is, and where Quahog would be if it were real—but it has spread far past the area’s imaginary borders.

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Now the food has such a passionate following that there’s an annual Lil Rhody Clam Cake Crawl where the “clamarati” spend a day sampling clam cakes at 11 different clam shacks across the state.

The winner, always, is Aunt Carrie’s.

“Aunt Carrie’s rules the clam cake universe because they are irregularly shaped, fist-sized pillows of crisp dough jammed with more clam bits than their fried foes,” says Rhode Island Monthly food editor Jamie Coelho. She went on the crawl last year, and spent 12 hours traversing the state with the group.

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Believe it or not, in a state that takes less than an hour to drive across diagonally, the variations in preparation can be huge. In different regions of Rhode Island, clam cakes can vary from ping pong ball-sized to tennis ball-sized, can have either minced clams or larger chopped pieces, and can be served with malt vinegar or tartar sauce.

“The clam cakes at Aunt Carrie’s are fluffy fried mounds of dough with way more clams in each cake than other shacks, plus we knew the shellfish came from a local seafood distributor,” Coelho says. “The exterior of the cakes have so many clam bits sticking out the sides, affectionately called nubbins by the clamarati, and that’s how you evaluate a perfect clam cake.”

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Even if you find clam cakes somewhere outside of Rhode Island, you probably won’t find them in their truest form: next to a bowl of Rhode Island clam chowder. Unlike New England clam chowder, the Rhode Island variety has a clear broth, and isn’t made with any cream. You can get it that way at Aunt Carrie’s, and many other waterfront restaurants around the state, but even here, the New England variation is vastly more popular.

To me, and to most people who have enjoyed them, regardless of the season, clam cakes and chowder belong together. But it is possible to love one and not the other. I’ve seen someone dig into a plate of clam cakes who would never touch so much as a spoonful of chowder.

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(I intellectually understood that some people did dislike chowder, but I never really understood how until I saw an episode of The Good Place in which Eleanor described it as “a savory latte with bugs in it” and “hot ocean milk with dead animal croutons.” Still, when I’m away from New England, I miss it more than I miss some people.)

Some South County residents, including Aunt Carrie’s fourth-generation owner Elsie Foy, say the only way to eat clam cakes is plain. Honestly, I don’t care much about the tradition. When I make them at home, sometimes I add chopped scallions into the batter, and top the finished clam cakes with a sprinkling of sea salt. And when I have them after a beach day, even with the hot sun beating down, I will dunk them to my heart’s content.

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Clam cakes at home
Clam cakes at home
Photo: Julie Tremaine
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Rhode Island Clam Cakes

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yields: 12-18 clam cakes depending on size

  • 6 cups neutral cooking oil
  • 3½ cups flour
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 (6½-oz.) cans of chopped clams, drained and liquid reserved

In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, beat the egg, then add the lemon juice, milk, and clam juice. Add the wet mixture into the dry mix, a small amount at a time to avoid lumps, and stir to combine. The batter should be thick but still malleable. Stir in the clams.

Using an ice cream scoop or a measuring cup, drop a scant ⅓ cup of the mix (less for smaller clam cakes) into the hot oil. Add 2-3 more scoops, making sure not to crowd the oil. You don’t want them to touch while cooking.

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Cooking in batches, fry the clam cakes for 5-7 minutes until deep golden brown, using a large slotted utensil to flip so they brown evenly. Remove to paper towels to absorb excess oil. Tent the cooked ones with foil to keep them hot. Serve immediately, with chowder or on their own. They’re best enjoyed hot and fresh, not reheated.

Note: For an easier but no less authentic route, order Aunt Carrie’s Famous Clam Cake Mix online.

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DISCUSSION

calzonegolem
CalzoneGolem

Every time is clam chowder time.