The Quandary Over What to Call Our Clams
In classical Latin, ''clam'' means in secret, and what can be more secret than the withdrawn serenity of a fat down-Maine clam deep in the salt mud, enclosed in his tight molluskian seclusion, with naught to do save await his destiny in a chowder?
Back River, which is that important part of the Atlantic Ocean that causes our taxes to sing high soprano, is excellent clam habitat. We don't go clamming off our shore because I don't bother with the required license. But those who do dig our flats are kindly disposed and sometimes drop us off a mess, and a mess is exactly what you call a feed of steamers. These are Maine coast soft-shell or long-necked clams, the finest kind, and not to be mistaken for substitutes and impostors.
A few weeks ago, I was laboring, as I am again now, and I was telling about my French professor who went to France on his sabbatical and stumbled on some long-lost manuscripts of Pascal. He was delighted, and I wanted to describe his pleasure by quoting an old-time Maine saying to the effect that he was happy as a clam at high water. Since he was a French professor, I wanted to phrase the saying in French, and bang! All at once, what is the French word for clam?
This is by no means a simple question. Except in Maine and Massachusetts, people in the United States think the quahog is a clam. In Europe they eat mussels, whereas in Maine nobody 'ceptin' summer folks has ever touched a mussel, unless maybe to bait a hook for a pollock. We do have quahogs in Maine, and some get to be the size of a stove lid, so we seldom refer to them as little necks.
Maine folks were never keen on quahogs, unless they're run through a meat grinder and cooked in a chowder long enough to be chewed. When you've got the best, why settle for less?
And we have several other ''clams.'' One is never seen commercially and seldom gets beyond the clam digger who found it. The fishermen call them hen clams, but they also answer to surf clams. One hen clam will make a meal for two hungry boys and is of superior quality. Usually found exposed rather than deep in the mud, a hen clam lives a less-secret life. From the open ocean, we can get sea clams by dredging. Did you ever see an angel-wing clam? They come a pair to a shell, the shells being slender and longer than the clam's. They are considered edible but not palatable. We also get the razor clams, the shape of the shell suggesting a straight-edge razor.
When you start looking these things up, you have an international difficulty. Larousse, the authority on cookery, will tell you, as he told me, that in most parts of France, palourde will be understood as a clam. (He does not tell me if palourde is masculine or feminine, but at the moment I am not too curious about a clam's gender.) More to the point is what anybody in France brings to mind when you say palourde. Mussels?
Biologically, a clam of any stripe is little more than a water pump. It draws ocean water, removes the nutrients, and then expels the water in a squirt that reveals its presence; clam diggers locate clams by looking for the squirt holes in the mud. The clams in the French dictionary are harder to find.
Understand, please, that here in Maine scholastic aptitude is not always a blessing, where good mother French has been Americanized for some 300 years of colonial treatment. Our eastern-shore clam, unknown in France, needed his own name, and I'm sure he got one long ago. My ear seems to recall coquilles, and maybe peignes. Maybe some true scholar will favor us with more. I hope so, as I would like to say my professor is as happy as a clam at high tide.
At high tide, which occurs twice in 24 hours, the Maine clam is safe in his mud flat, and the flat is under 10 feet (or more) of water. At high tide the clam can just loll about and pump water and wax fat, which pleases him. And at high tide the clam diggers are not out looking for him. It has been customary to explain to summer folks that in Maine it is unlawful to dig clams at high tide. Now and then, one, in nonresident innocence, will ask why not, and we list the several dozen reasons for this, most of which escape me at the moment.
You'll notice that in this full treatment of an illusive subject, I have not mentioned tomatoes, which are included in Manhattan Clam Chowder. The Manhattan Clam Chowder will not be found in Maine unless somebody is trying to be funny. There is no law against it, but discretion, a desire to be loved and admired, and simple wisdom and judgment have deterred our cooks from making fools of themselves.
Mrs. Lemuel Farrington Proctor, who for many years was the wife of Lemuel Farrington Proctor of Cape Split, Maine, put it this way: She said, ''If'n I was to lose my wits and start a clam chowder with quahogs, I'd sure douse the thing some old goo-ood with tomatoes, peas, cabbage, and a handful o' turnip, and anything else I had. Quahogs need all the help they can get.'' Thus it rightly is. I have spoken.
Hiram Webber, a friend of mine in the bygone, was famous for his clam cakes. Nobody ever made better. One time a summer-lady neighbor said, ''Hiram, I hear you make the best clam cakes in Maine. Could I have the recipe?'' Hiram said, ''Well, Myrtle, they's mostly clams.''
Several friends of French-Canadian background have promised to find me the French word for a Maine clam. I expect it will turn out to be clam.