I Ate the Atlantic Coast
From a "Ravenous" column from Ulster Publishing
When I was a kid I took a car trip with my parents to Florida and all the way down we traveled along the Atlantic coastline rather than the highway. At every restaurant that we stopped at for lunch or dinner I ordered clam chowder. And to this day any attempts at healthy balanced eating seem to go out the window as soon as I head out of town. Although normally I’m crazy for variety, when I travel I might eat mostly pasta with creamy sauces for two weeks, or pâté for ten days, depending where I am, or more recently nine days of fried clams and steamed lobsters drenched in butter.
What follows is what my husband calls my annual “What I Ate on My Summer Vacation” column. I love to travel and I love to eat and welcome the chance to indulge in something I can’t get or wouldn’t order at home, calories be damned.
This summer we couldn’t sensibly bring ourselves to follow the crowds to their own driveways for a “staycation,” but we didn’t fly anywhere, just meandered up the New England coast to see friends, maxing out the credit cards on pricey gasoline, pricey hotels, and pricey eats. Remember not so long ago when a gallon of gas was less than two bucks, a night in a cheap motel under fifty, a sandwich under five? Those days are long gone and everything this trip seemed wildly expensive, hotel rooms well over a hundred, clam rolls $13-15, plain one-pound lobsters $20 and up, and I don’t want to even think about the gas. Shoulda just stayed home and eaten frozen HoJo’s clam strips and imagined the scent of the salty air. Naah. I think I have a good imagination, but it’s not that good. Nor would those frozen clam strips be as hot, crispy, sweet and briny as fried clam bellies. So I followed a trail of clams from Narragansett, Rhode Island, to Boston, consuming far more mollusks and crustaceans than a person should, by anyone’s account.
My husband and I lived in Rhode Island for eight years, leaving in 1993. I went back for a conference in 2000 and he hasn’t been back since we moved. So it was a homecoming to a state that we still have soft spots in our hearts for. We loved being near the sea, the mix of cultures, the people, who may not be as friendly to strangers as they are here in the Hudson Valley, but once you get in, once you break that shell, you’re treated like gold, like forever family. We loved the quirky foods like coffee milk, coffee cabinets (milk shakes), New York System Hot Weiners [sic] and its more excellent kin the snappy saugy, the zesty red Portuguese sausages chouriço and linguiça, doughboys (deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar, like zeppoles), grapenut pudding, jonnycakes (white cornmeal pancakes) and quahogs, big hard-shell clams whose ample meat is used for chowder, stuffies and clam cakes (clam fritters).
First stop was the south coast of the state, where we lingered for a few days. At the beach the very air tastes like the brininess of the sea and the seafood that emerges from it. We visited the classic clam shacks that boast seafood so fresh it doesn’t need embellishment save maybe the tang of lemon, with its own natural balance that it invariably loses when it travels far from the shore.
After a forgettable meal our first night at the Hammerhead Grille (should have been the Hammerwallet or the Hammertummy), we next went to Champlin’s Seafood Deck in Narragansett for the first lobster of the trip. The lobster crackers were only available for a two buck rental fee, but the lobster was a soft shelled summer critter and easy to get into with my very determined bare hands. Lobster is manna for me and I always devour every morsel but the shell and cartilage. There were clam strips for our clam belly-aversive kids, a clam belly roll (coated in what Champlin’s calls a “dry batter,” a combo of batter and crumbs) and a sweet little pile of steamers for dessert because we were still hungry.
Another dinner at the popular Aunt Carrie’s offered a mountain of irresistible steamer clams--I never knew until I researched my clam column that steamed clams and fried clam bellies are made from the same critters—with a lobster, again, and a killer blueberry pie a la mode. At George’s of Galilee we had a sit down dinner with half a dozen impossibly sweet Matunuck oysters followed by a hit-or-miss seafood platter and some excellent fresh local swordfish topped with diced mango. A lunch at Starboard Galley in Charlestown was great: another clam belly roll, fish tacos and some perfectly crispy calamari the way only Rhode Islanders do it, topped with banana peppers, roasted peppers, garlic and black olives—gilding the lily, perhaps, but great.
But the best coastal food we had was at a little hole-in-the-wall seafood market that also offered chowder and clam cakes for sale. The chowder was Rhode Island’s unique clear chowder that contains neither milk nor tomato, just lots of flavor, clammy essences and bacon.
Then it was on to Providence to revisit old haunts: former schools, places of employment, the “triple decker” house where we lived on the top floor, the Unitarian church where we got married, the Biltmore Hotel where we had our reception. The city has been reborn since we lived there, beautified and improved, and is now a truly gorgeous city full of history, charm and character. A trip through the yellow pages showed me that our old favorite restaurants were still there (although we didn’t get to them): Little Chopsticks (their best dish had been Strange Flavor Chicken), Wes’ Rib House (their motto “put some south in your mouth”), Angelo’s Civita Farnese on Federal Hill for cheap and authentic Italian and the Haven Brothers Truck where we had a few late night meals after carousing in town. The Providence restaurant scene has changed a lot; on weekends restaurants used to be so crowded you couldn’t get in, so in those free and childless days when we would eat out once or twice a week it was mostly on weeknights. Now there are many more restaurants to go around, many more serving Asian cuisines, especially a proliferation of pan-Asian places offering Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Japanese and Chinese food all in one place.
A dear friend cooked us up a couple dinners, one a sumptuous mountain of pasta with a bounty of shellfish. And we stumbled on Angkor, a Cambodian place that had a charming staff and a casually comfy living room ambiance. The food was fresh and tasty and the cuisine new to us: lot (baby egg rolls), nam yaa (medicine soup with herbs, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, chicken and shrimp), spicy beef saraman curry and some “street noodles.”
We bought superb noshes like only Providence offers, stopping at Caserta’s Bakery for the classic Rhode Island cold cheeseless pizza strips that we thought so strange when we first moved there but that are perfect in their plainness, and pepper biscuits and wine biscuits, the former my favorite: crispy crunchy chunks of biscuit full of black pepper, fennel and olive oil, a concept that just doesn’t translate as well anywhere else. At Tony’s Colonial on Atwells Avenue in the Italian section we got olives, prosciutto, Pecorino Toscano, homemade marinated artichoke hearts and a heavenly snail salad (actually thinly slivers of tender conch) that was dressed with mostly oil and a dash of vinegar, perfectly garlicky. It was all delightful at a post-zoo picnic in Roger Williams park in the shade on a sunny day on a hill overlooking the Temple of Music. Although the menu was different it reminded me of a 1992 picnic in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne which included jambon, head cheese, stinky cheese, pears, grapes, great cheap wine and no kids, but had much the same feeling.
Breakfast at Loui’s near Brown University offered a funky atmosphere that combined greasy spoon cheap and artistic décor. I find Rhode Island refreshing for its culinary realness. Although it’s the original home of Johnson & Wales culinary school, there’s plenty of great cheap food that is down-to-earth, unpretentious and real.
After a mountain of glorious dim sum at Lucky Garden in North Providence we headed out of town to see old friends who live on Boston’s South Shore. After some beach time with their four kids and our two, the busy mom managed to whip up a most satisfying lobster dinner.
That night in Arlington another generous friend offered us late evening mezze, and the next night on the North Shore we were treated to yet more hospitality from my stepbrother and his wife.
We had lunch in Cambridge at Jasper White’s Summer Shack where we preceded yet more fish (broiled bluefish) and a fried clam roll with a wild assortment of oysters on the half shell (Blue Points, Island Creek, Malpeque, Pemaquid, East Beach and Wellfleet).
After ten days of shore feasting we returned home to venture out yet again a week later back toward the ocean, Long Island Sound anyway, to go to a family reunion between Waterbury and New Haven, Conn., and dine on local oysters, clams and mussels.
Although this summer’s seafood extravaganza has been a delight and the good company of family and old friends even better, I’m kind of glad to be back to eating fresh from the farm (Hearty Roots CSA), with nothing fried and much less protein, to dream of the next shore trip. But I think I’m okay for a while.