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The Clamor For Maine's Clams

By John Gould / October 17, 1997



My friend Mike Brown of Duck Trap, Maine, who has written some jolly good Down East reading under the poison-pen name of Perc Sane, created a smart little boy who became a millionaire at 5 by selling clam juice to summer people. A purse seine is a fishing net with a puckering string so you can draw it shut when fish get in it; and clam juice is the sea water left over when you steam off a mess of clams.

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Not only that, but in Down-Maine a clam is the long-necked, soft-shelled chowder candidate and never the New York or Baltimore impostor known in Maine as a quahog (CO-hog). It's from the Indian, and the quahog is a clam right enough, but chewy and tough, and by no means comparable. Clam juice is esteemed as a delicacy, and while summer folks use it, they probably call it bouillon. Any seafood is enhanced by some clam juice in the preparation.

For long-long years, Maine clams were packed in tin cans for the carriage trade, and then clams became scarce. As a business, canning clams declined. Down the coast (to the east'ard), a certain packer of seafood turned to clams as a seasonal way to keep his crew intact until something else came along. He'd do sardines, some gasperaux, and perhaps some alewives in tall cans for export, and he'd make a little money. Then when there was nothing else to pack, he'd do a few clams. And he discovered a most interesting opportunity.

As the fresh clams, just out of the adjacent clam flats, were steamed in his cooking vat, a byproduct was a great quantity of clam juice. The delicious little clam was shucked from its shell by ladies hired to do so, put in cans, hermetically sealed, and sold on the market at a loss. Nobody ever made money canning clams.

So why can any? The answer was always the same: "It keeps our crew ready, pays the help a little in the lean season, and while we don't make any money, it isn't all that big a loss."

But Mr. Look, I believe his name was, knew that some people liked clam juice, and he began to wonder. Maybe he was running all that water from his cooking vat back into the ocean when he should be putting it in bottles. So he got some bottles and had some labels printed, and the next season at clam time he was ready to find out. A buyer from the S.S. Pierce Specialty Store in Boston, among others, called on Mr. Look each season to buy sardines, and he was asked what he thought. He thought yes, and packing clam juice became far more profitable than packing clams.

You lost money on clams, made money on juice, but you had to pack clams to get the juice. I have heard it said that Mr. Look was the first to call clam juice clam bouillon, believing it would sell better under a spiffier name. The S.S. Pierce people agreed, and they ought to know about such things.

Now, I've been extremely patient with you folks as I told about all this, and to reward you for your attention I will relate what comes next, to wit:

World War II came about, and the United States came up with a plan called Lend-Lease. All kinds of commodities were made available to needy nations at the expense of the US tax-payer, and rather much as a denial of Cal Coolidge's remark, "Well, they borried the money, didn't they?" Among the goodies ordered for this Lend-Lease program was a great quantity of the canned Maine clam.

The Russians loved our clams! And our Mr. Look became joyful and made ready. He had the factory, the cooking facilities, the ladies on call, the retorts, and an unbounded willingness. If the Russians liked our clams and Uncle Sam had the money, he had the rest. He ordered his cans from American Can and his bottles from Pittsburgh Glass.

Then a man came around from the Office of Price Administration - known as OPA - for some reason, and he enquired what Mr. Look was about to do with all these cans and bottles. There was a war on, you know.

"Yes," said Mr. Look, "I know that. We're going to pack clams for Lend-Lease!" "Splendid!" said the OPA man, "we commend you for your zeal and patriotic enthusiasm! We can let you have a generous quota of cans. Now, what are the bottles for?"

"Clam bouillon," Mr. Look said.

"And what is clam bouillon?"

"Well, it's really clam juice. It's the broth after cooking clams. We put clams in cans and the juice in bottles."

"You don't say," said the man from OPA. The man was very smart and had two degrees from Harvard, but he didn't seem to comprehend Mr. Look's explanation that they canned clams only because that's the way you get clam bouillon. OPA said no bottles.

IN the end, Mr. Look and all the other clam canners told the OPA the same thing: no bottles, no clams for Lend-Lease. That's the end of this story, but I'd like you to know something further about clam-juice money:

One year, because of a poor run of herring and government interference, Mr. Look had a lean season. He went to the bank in Bar Harbor to say, "I may need to borrow a little to take me through the clam packing." The banker said, "No problem! But instead of borrowing, why don't you use some of the money in the checking account you have with your wife? Every week your bookkeeper deposits her house money, and for better than 35 years she hasn't spent a third of what she puts in. The money's just laying there, idle."

"Glad you spoke of that," said Mr. Look, "I'd forgotten all about that! How much does she have?"

"Three hundred and forty-two thousand."