J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

“A Dish of Fryed Clams”

I’m grabbing the chance to quote William Pavlovsky’s letter in Saturday’s Boston Globe because it fits right in with Boston 1775, it saves me from coming up with own material, and I think more people should hear about Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Annapolis.

Pavlovsky told the paper and its readers:

I would like to lay to rest, once and for all, the myth that fried clams were “invented” in Essex in 1916.

As proof of my contention, I offer the following from the “Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton,” an account of a journey through the northern colonies in 1744 by a physician from Annapolis, Md., and published as “Gentleman’s Progress” by the University of North Carolina Press. From the entry for June 15, 1744, at the Narrows Ferry on Staten Island, N.Y.: “I dined att one Corson’s that keeps the ferry . . . upon what I never have eat in my life before — a dish of fryed clams, of which shellfish there is in abundance in these parts.”

Hamilton adds that the diners stuffed them down with rye bread and butter, and that they “took such a deal of chawing that we were long att dinner, and the dish began to cool before we had eat enough.”
Dr. Hamilton’s delightful description of a journey from Annapolis to York, Maine, is in print at a reasonable price in the Penguin Classics volume Colonial American Travel Narratives.


George Lovely said...

I'm guessing what Dr. Alexander called 'fryed' we likely would call sauteed or pan-fried, as opposed to battered and deep-fried like the clams of Essex.

Washington Irving in his 'History of New York' from 1809 does note that the local Dutch made "balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog's fat" (proto-donuts called olekoeks, or oil cakes), but to my knowledge there's no early 19th century description involving anthing being battered first and then fried.

J. L. Bell said...

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a difference in the recipe, and perhaps some culinary historians have evidence from cookbooks or from the folks in Essex who claimed primacy.

The Essex claim might have to be more narrowly expressed: “invented deep-fried clams” (except we don’t like to say “deep-fried” anymore, we just like to eat it) or “invented the modern fried clams we know and love.”

Jan said...

I would disagree with the idea that 18th century frying did not involve battering. Hannah Glasse, one of the most popularly published cooks in 18th century England (the Colonial Betty Crocker, if you will) describes frying battered fish in her book "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" (page 38 of the 1805 reprint). It may not be the thick, heavy, "more batter than meat" product that massmarket fryers sell today, but it is indeed a description of battering and frying fish for, as Mrs Glasse puts it, "Some love fish in a batter..."