Hancock, Maine — When warm weather comes to coastal Maine, it means dandelions and fiddlehead greens, the return of the screeching ospreys and the great blue herons on Penobscot Bay.
On the mudflats of Hancock and Washington counties, the lonely winter clam digger is joined by his summer companions, and the horizon is dotted by the croquet wicket curve of the clam diggers' silhouette.
Maine clams have been written about since the early days of the Pilgrims who wrote about the new land with "the bay full of lobsters and mussels and clams at the very door all winter long."
Those first clams were undoubtedly cooked much the same as the way Mainers like them today, steamed until the shells open to release the goodness of broth and the clam. But it wasn't long before the famous New England chowder was to follow.
Chowders went through several changes during the early years with recipes in the old cookbooks hinting sometimes at spices added to the broth and many recipes with no milk or cream.
But for many years now the essential ingredients remain the same -- clams, salt pork, potatoes, onions and milk. The proportions will vary slightly depending on which Mainer you talk to about these family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.
I chatted about chowder with several lady clam-shuckers in Steuben, Maine, all from the same family --sisters, cousins, and daughters in law.
Each had her own variation. But in the case of this family of chowder makers , all agreed that a bit of evaporated milk is needed to thicken the chowder.
Some used only evaporated milk, others used half evaporated and half fresh and still others used just a touch of the evaporated in with the fresh.
One ingredient the chowder does not have, of course, is tomatoes. Tomatoes go in Manhattan Clam Chowder, but most Mainers don't even recognize it as chowder at all.
In fact, Maine people dislike the idea of tomatoes in chowder, so much that a decade ago the Maine legislature introduced a bill to outlaw forever the mixing of clams and tomatoes.
In restaurants here the most popular clam dish is fried clams. Some of the best I've ever had were at the Rusty Anchor restaurant on Route I, a little south of Milbridge, and a good piece downeast from Bangor.
The clams are crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy inside. The secret is the timing of the young chef, Sharon Moore, who until a couple of years ago was a waitress at the restaurant, but decided that cooking was more fun.
She dips the clams in milk, then rolls them repeatedly in a clam fry mixture. From what I've been able to determine, this is a mixture of flour and cornmeal and very little seasoning. Her greatest tip is to make sure the mixture stays on the slippery little clam, and this takes repeated rolling in the mix. Then quickly into the hot oil they go, and the moment they float to the surface, they're dipped out, and dashed to the customer.
For those with a spirit of adventure and a love of authenticity, there is nothing like an old-fashioned clambake outdoors on the beach. Robert Tristam Coffin has written one of the best descriptions of this in his description of a clambake with the Abenaki Maine Indians.
"The Abenakis and I cook clams in the open, under the whole high blue and blazing summer sky, under the blazing sun, and with the wind snowed with a thousand seagulls. It is on a bay where the whitecaps come rolling in from Spain, where bayberry leaves and fir needles scorch in the sun and mackerel-hawks are going over like white arrows, that clams are to be cooked and eaten at their best."
There are of course other less simple, and at the same time less complicated ways of using the delicious mollusk. Clam Hash is a favorite in these parts. Clam Hash 2 medium onions, chopped fine 6 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups diced cooked potatoes 2 cups minced freshly steamed clams Salt and pepper 6 bacon slices 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Melt butter in a large skillet and saute onion gently until soft. Mix potato , clams, salt, pepper to taste. Add to onions and press down with a spatula. Cook about 10 minutes or until a brown crust forms on the bottom.
Meanwhile fry bacon until crisp and crumble it. When hash has browned on the bottom, turn it with the spatula, mixing in some of the crust. Press down again and cook a few minutes. Top with grated cheese, sprinkle with bacon and cover tightly for a minute to let cheese melt.
The cheese isn't absolutely necessary. I prefer the hash without the cheese.
An unusual soup made with clams: Watercress Clam Soup 4 medium potatoes, peeled, diced 2 medium onions, finely minced 2 tablespoons butter 1 quart clams, steamed 1 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 cups clam liquor 1 cup cream or rich milk Salt and pepper 2 egg yolks, beaten 1 bunch watercress
Peel and dice potatoes, and cook in water to cover until tender. Drain and force through fine sieve. Saute onions in butter. Steam clams in kettle with 3 /4 cup water, shell and chop very fine. Reserve clam liquor.
Combine sauteed onion, potato puree, and minced clams, mix thoroughly. Add potato water, clam liquor and cream and heat thoroughly.
Remove coarse stems from watercress, chop leaves very fine or pound in mortar. Remove soup from fire, add to egg yolks carefully, stirring constantly, add cress.
This recipe has been used for years by Maine Seafood Festivals around the state. Clam Puffs 1 tablespoon melted butter 1 egg 1 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 1/2 cups flour 1 pint shucked fresh clams
Beat egg and add melted butter and milk. Sift baking powder and salt with flour, add to egg and milk mixture. Squeeze out black area from clams, grind clams and mix with batter. Make into balls the size of a walnut. Fry in deep fat. Makes a lovely hors d'oeuvre.