It has been bitterly cold all week as I sit down to write this. Methinks it is time for an out-of-season adventure.
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Regrets? I’ve had a few.
One that lingers involves a late-spring morning in 1996, when I was working for a chain of weekly newspapers in the suburbs of Boston.
It was a slow day — probably the day we sent that week’s papers to the printer, and lackadaisically started getting busy on the next.
Idleness being the devil’s workshop, the guy in the cube next to mine came up with an impetuous idea. He suggested a bunch of us ditch work for a couple of hours, drive up the North Shore and feast on fried clams.
Several of us thought that was a great idea … but we could not quite convince ourselves to abandon our responsibilities and go on a joyride. And within a few minutes, the impulse was lost.
Whatever stupid local-interest story I worked on during those hours is long since lost to history. But I bet if I’d taken that ride, I could still close my eyes and taste the fried clams today.
(In a good way.)
I am pleased to report that when my grandparents had the opportunity to savor some real New England fried clams, they didn’t waver like me.
In the vernacular of the plainfolk, they crushed that shiznit.
Exit 24 off Route 91 is still there. Depending on which way you go, it will take you to one of two towns in the greater Hartford area — Wethersfield or Rocky Hill.
Sadly, the Clam Box, where my grandfolks supped, is no longer there. The interwebs say the Wethersfield location closed in 1979, while satellite restaurants in two other Connecticut towns closed in 1985.
Two posts on other blogs tell the story of the Clam Box better than I could. One covers the restaurant’s rise and fall, while the other includes comments from a member of the family that ran all three Clam Boxes.
The story is a familiar one: Family restaurant thrives thanks to insane amounts of work, but eventually runs aground when the next generation decides it wants to do something else with its waking hours besides jostle trays in a Fryolator.
There was more to the Clam Box than just small-town mom-and-pop, though.
An ad for the Clam Box restaurants pops up in a July 1972 issue of New York magazine. So, apparently, the owning family had aspirations that went beyond central Connecticut.
And the first blog post linked above says the Clam Box wasn’t your average fry-’em-up-and-move-’em-out seafood shack.
According to that post, the restaurant sent a buyer to New York City’s Fulton Fish Market at 3 a.m., then stored the freshly delivered seafood on a regularly replaced bed of ice, rather than refrigerating it.
That suggests a commitment to freshness and quality — which is pretty much the first thing you’d want in a seafood restaurant.
Of course I have no real way to know what my grandparents ordered. (For that matter, I have no clear notion what brought them to the Hartford area to begin with. Perhaps they had friends in the area they were going to meet.)
This would have been about a year before my grandpa’s first heart attack, and I doubt he was watching his diet all that much.
So maybe he took a hint from the name of the restaurant and tucked in to a big, golden, warm, succulent, briny plate of fried clams, every bite redolent of the great mother sea that graciously gives up its treasures to the two-legged but will someday lose its patience and press the Game Over button, claiming every one of our pathetic mortal souls in a turbulent rolling salty welter of —
— whoa, whoa. Catch your breath, Horace Clarke. Where were we?
In my head, my grandparents, and presumably my great-grandma too, are sitting around a rustic table in a room decorated with fisherman’s netting, politely dunking fresh-fried clams into tartar sauce, quietly enjoying the feel of early summer and the feel of being alive, and ignoring their coleslaw.
Next time I get back to Massachusetts — and there will be a next time; I’m not keeling over until I’ve been back a couple more times — I’m gonna do the same.
For them … and for me.
I’m kind of overdue for a good plate of fried clams, you see.