Next up on the essays shelf:
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick
Secret Ingredients is a collection of food writing from The New Yorker. I love these collections. So far, we have excerpted from the following collections: Life Stories, The Fun of It, and The New Gilded Age. There are a couple more collections out there that I do not own, sports writing, humor writing, fiction.
I’m not a foodie, but I love this collection because 1. it gives snapshots of different eras, 2. the writing is great, of course.
Another essay by Joseph Mitchell (whose essay about beefsteak dinners started off the whole collection). Known for traipsing around the five boroughs, befriending all kinds of people who could help him get to the heart of a certain story, or access to an invisible New York sub-culture, Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker for decades. I love his style! It’s funny, you meet a lot of great characters, but it’s also informative and enlightening.
This piece, “A Mess of Clams”, dates from 1939. Joseph Mitchell loves clams, and looks back longingly on a mythical day out on Block Island (yay, Block Island), when he “placed third in a clam-eating tournament at a Block Island clam back” – he says it is “one of the few worthwhile achievements” of his life. I love him. Here, he goes out with Captain Archie M. Clock into the South Bay to dig up clams. The clam beds, at this point, are owned by Islip and Babylon, two Long Island towns, and I wonder how the landscape/ownership has changed. My brother-in-law would know. He’s worked “in seafood” his whole life, and knows everything. I come from Rhode Island. We are a seafaring, seafood state. It’s big business down there. I love how many pieces in this Secret Ingredients collection have to do with seafood: how to catch it, how to clean it, how to pack it and send it off to high-end restaurants around the country. This is what my brother-in-law does. So Joseph Mitchell is fascinated by the whole clamming process. He befriends Captain Clock, who owns the Still & Clock clam-shipping firm. Clock comes from a fishing family that goes back generations. They have all lived in the same area, and fished, farmed oysters, and dug up clams for over a century. They know their shit. Captain Clock’s first mate is a guy named Bollinger.
“A Mess of Clams” is Joseph Mitchell’s description of his day out on the water with Captain Archie Clock. Basically, Clock sits in his big boat (the Jennie Tucker), and waits for the individual clammers around the bay to come over and dump off their “mess of clams”, which Captain Clock then takes back to the shore, and packs them up into delivery trucks, to be eaten that night in Manhattan restaurants. Joseph Mitchell follows the whole process.
Great stuff. Here’s an excerpt.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick; ‘A Mess of Clams’, by Joseph Mitchell
We drank some more tea, and then another clammer, a gloomy-eyed, sunburned young man, pulled alongside. He was in a catboat that had been patched with tin in a dozen places.
“Hello, Tarzan,” said Bollinger. “Didn’t that old eelpot sink yet? How many clams you got?”
“I been croshaying the mud for six hours and I barely took enough to bait a hook,” the young man said. “They was thin where I was tonging.”
“Quit bellyaching,” said Bollinger. “If it was to rain clams, you wouldn’t be satisfied.” The young man passed over a bushel of necks, two bushels of cherries, a scanty peck of chowders, and three conches. Captain Clock handed him five ones and twenty cents. He folded the bills into a wad and stuffed it in his watch pocket. “Another day, another dollar,” he said. “My back feels like it was run over by a load of bricks.” He cranked his engine and moved off, heading for Babylon. “He’ll get drunk tonight,” Captain Clock said. “I can tell by the way he was talking.” The Captain bent over a bag of cherries. He scooped a double handful out of the mouth of the bag and spread them on the deck. “Beauties,” he said. “Uniform as peas in a pod. The shells are blue now, but they’ll turn gray or white before we get them to town.” He opened a cherry and balanced it on his palm. He looked at it admiringly. “A spawner,” he said. “Now, that’s the beauty of a clam. He doesn’t make a bit of fuss about spawning. An oyster’s just the opposite. He spawns from May through August – the months without an ‘r’ in them – and he gets so milky you can’t eat him on the half shell. You can fry him, but you can’t eat him raw. A clam is better behaved. He never gets milky enough to notice and he’s just as good in the midsummer months, when he’s spawning, as he is on the coldest day of the winter.”
Captain Clock said that last year the town of Islip bought two thousand dollars’ worth of hard-shells from Massachusetts and New Jersey and scattered them in its beds. “Foreign clams put new blood in the natives,” he said. “They improve the breed. The spawn mixes and we get a better set. Hey, Charlie, hand me a knife. I’m going to try some of these chowders.” The Captain opened a dozen chowders and arranged them in a semicircle on the hatch. We were eating them when Bollinger suddenly shouted, “Here come the cops!” He pointed in the direction of Babylon, and I saw a launch flying a green flag. In a minute it cut the water just off our bow, heading for the fleet. The clammers stopped work and commenced yelling. “They’re warning each other,” Bollinger said. “That’s the police boat from Babylon. The cops go through the beds every day or so. You never know when they’ll show up. If they spy an Islip man in Babylon water, they give him a ticket and he has to go to court and get fined.” The clammers leaned on their tong and rake handles while the police boat slowly picked its way through the fleet. It did not halt; evidently the clammers were behaving themselves.
Presently another clammer called it a day and came alongside. He was a gaunt, stooped man, who silently handed over four bushels of necks, three bushels of cherries, and a bushel and a peck of chowders. He collected $13.75, bit a chew of tobacco off a plug he took from his hip pocket, mumbled, “Good night, Cap,” and pushed off. “He’s one of the best clammers on Long Island,” said Captain Clock. “I bet he’s got ten thousand dollars in the bank, and he’s so saving he gets his wife to cut his hair.” The gaunt clammer’s departure from the beds appeared to be a signal to the others. Soon after he left, they began moving toward the buy-boat in twos and threes. In twenty minutes the Jennie Tucker was surrounded by loaded boats, waiting their turns to come alongside. “They all have to come at once,” Bollinger said indignantly. Captain Clock stood at the stern, hunched over his ledger, which he had placed on the cabin roof. Bollinger helped the clammers heft their bags over the rail. He piled the chowders aft, the cherries on the hatch, and the necks forward. When a boat finished unloading he would call out the number of bushels, and the Captain would make a notation in his ledger and then pay off the clammer.
To get out of Bollinger’s way, I went to the bow and sat on a bale of empty bags. Standing in their boats, the waiting clammers smoked cigarettes and shouted insults at each other. I couldn’t tell if the insults were good-natured or genuine. “If I was you, I’d take that old cement-mixer home and set fire to it,” one yelled at his neighbor. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that dirty old boat.” “Well, it’s paid of,” said the master of the cement-mixer, “and that’s more’n you can say.” “Paid for!” screamed the first man. “You mean you stole it off the beach. Nothing’s safe when you’re around. Why, by God, you’d steal a tick off a widow’s belly!” Most of the clammers seemed to be quite surly. I heard a young clammer ask the man in the next boat, a sullen old man in wet overalls, how many clams he had. “None of your business,” said the old man. “Well, I was just asking to pass the time,” said the young clammer. The old man grunted. “Fare better if you keep your trap shut,” he said.