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Folks in Maine treat their clams with deference—and lots of butter

When you ask for clams in Maine, chances are good you’re getting steamers—which is to say, soft-shelled clams, technically Mya arenaria. These clams grow in mud flats all the way up the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to the Canadian Arctic, but most Mainers will suggest that theirs are the very best.

They’re also variously called manninose, piss clams, longneck clams, Ipswich clams, and belly clams. Unlike hard-shelled clams, whose various names tend to denote size (from cherrystone to quahog), steamers seem to be nicknamed descriptively. They do have long necks, they do grow near Ipswich, Mass—and, if you go out digging, they might just squirt water at you.

Maybe it’s the sediment in which they grow, or perhaps a testament to Maine’s coastal water quality. It could be that, while many soft-shelled clams certainly get fried, the tradition in Maine is to treat them with a little more deference. This is not to say that fried clams are hard to find in Maine—these abound at clam shacks and summer eateries all along the coast—but there is a reason that steamers are called just that.

“Part of the enjoyment of eating steamers is the amount of work you have to go through. But it’s also the nuance that goes with it. It’s the preparation of it,”says Ben Alfiero, co-owner of the Harbor Fish Market in Portland. “Eating steamers is a luxury in itself.”

Steamer clams have to be shelled individually by the consumer, and in this way they are akin to lobster. It should come as no surprise that both are, almost by definition, part of a shore dinner, or lobster bake (the kind of bake that employs coals and seaweed on a beach). It is worth pointing out that the lobsters in a traditional lobster bake are more properly steamed than baked. Nobody would accuse the Maine vernacular of being overly persnickety.

And steamers share another trait with lobster; both just have to be dipped in melted butter.

Here is how Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, describes the perfect steamer: “It is still hot, and the perfect complement is warm butter. The butter and the warm salinity of the belly of the clam are what first grab you, and then the finish has a different salinity, a little more mild, in the clam meat that’s left in the neck and the mantle. But the belly goes first—it’s like a burst of ocean in your mouth.”

Hot Steamer Tips

Hot steamer tips Clams spend their lives sucking up mud and grit, so you may find some inside the shell. The most common method to reduce the grit is to soak them in salt water for at least an hour.

Alternatively, some folks suggest soaking in fresh water with vinegar; others suggest adding cornmeal or pepper to the water; still others state there is little that can be done for a sandy clam. Regardless, a good soak can’t hurt.

For steaming, many recipes call for lightly salted water, but Chuck Maynard, a clammer of 25 years, says: “The best thing to use is a can of beer.”
Lastly, don’t forget to remove the skin around the neck. This is called “the beard,” and should be discarded.

Steamers can be purchased at any establishment that sells seafood, and preparing them is, perhaps not surprisingly, dead easy.

Put the clams in a pot, with about an inch of liquid at the bottom. Use a rack if you have one. Cover and steam for five to 10 minutes, or as long as it takes to get the clams to open up. They’re ready to eat as soon as they open.

Serve the clams with the liquid in the pot (their juices have trickled down, and it’s now called broth), and melted butter.

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