The late George Plimpton was a pioneering journalist who garnered much of his acclaim from competing in professional sporting events then recording the experience from an amateur’s standpoint. From pitching against the National League prior to an All-Star baseball game to quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in an intrasquad scrimmage, Plimpton momentarily lived the dream of every would-be professional athlete.
Today, it seems every network and cable channel has a competing reality show in which an unabashed combatant or group of contestants undertake unsavory jobs–such as bullfighter or oil driller–for which they are wholly unqualified. The Discovery channel even has a show in which a poor sap “exposes the grimy underbelly of America’s dirtiest jobs.” Participants in these reality shows run the gamut–from risking life and limb to almost certain humiliation.
It came as no surprise when the Food Network announced its 2009 launch of its own job related reality show. On “Will Work for Food” host Adam Gertler travels across the fruited plain trying out different jobs in the food industry for a day. The show calls for him to do literally learn every job in the world of food. The good-natured Gertler has had jobs in which he’s had to create an edible chocolate bra, hunted for truffles, filled orders on roller skates and turned food into gore at Hollywood’s Cinema Makeup School.
Of all the jobs Gertler has had, the one for which I’d most have liked to switch places with him is learning all the steps in making a lobster roll at the world famous The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine. The first step in the process was loading up bait on a lobster boat, a rigorous task that had him on the boat by the inhumane hour of 5AM. Gertner learned how to haul traps, sell the day’s bounty to local businesses then how to cook the lobster, shell its meat, weigh portions and prepare the final product.
Gertner’s verdict, “this lobster roll is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth” pretty much echoes the sentiment of many of The Clam Shack’s patrons, lines of which snake down the street, waiting for up to an hour for the freshest seafood they can find. Fittingly The Clam Shack was selected by Epicurious.com as one of the top ten seafood shacks in America. For nearly three decades, foodies have detoured many miles to dine at this famous institution. Others, like me, will spend a couple of days in the area so we can have our fill of its bounty more than once.
The Clam Shack is the archetypal clam shack. It is situated literally on the foot of what everyone calls “the bridge” which divides the village of Kennebunk from the famous vacation destination of Kennebunkport. With barely more room than a taco truck, The Clam Shack has no amenities of which to speak. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor the heat of day will keep hungry patrons from their place in line. After their orders are filled, they will either lean against the bridge rail to consume their meal or take a seat on one of the makeshift wooden benches out back by the water. Signage warns diners to “Beware of Seagulls. They like our food as much as you do.” True enough, the scavenging aquatic birds lustily eye your seafood bounty from overhead.
The Clam Shack’s most famous patrons don’t have to wait in line. About two miles away from The Clam Shack, situated on an imposing rocky promontory, is the Bush family compound. When the Bush family has a craving for lobster rolls or seafood, they call ahead then dispatch the secret service to pick their order. Under Presidents Bush #41 and #43, Kennebunkport held several international summits, hosting a stream of world leaders and regaling such dignitaries as Russian President Vladimir Putin with fried clams and lobster rolls from the Clam Shack.
An “I Love Me” wall includes a framed letter from former first lady Barbara Bush as well as the July, 2007 edition of Everyday with Rachael Ray in which the Food Network’s kitchen diva raves about the Clam Shack’s lobster roll. A USA Today feature entitled “The Fifty Great Plates of America” is also posted which reads, “The lobster roll is a simply perfect creation. One of the best versions comes from The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine (open Mothers’ Day through Columbus Day).”
In 2007, Roadfood’s Michael Stern wrote “Lobster rolls at the Clam Shack are the best. Truly, the best. None better. Number one. King of all lobster rolls.” By 2009, The Clam Shack’s lobster roll had dropped just a bit in Stern’s estimation–to number two, the difference between the top two being the roll in which the lobster is packed.
Instead of the more tradition split top roll, the Clam Shack’s lobster is nestled into a grilled hamburger type bun–and what lovely, luscious lobster it is. An entire pound of perfectly pink lobster, as many as ten chunks of hand-shredded claw and tail meat are stuffed into the roll then drizzled with shimmering melted butter (or dolloped with mayonnaise if that’s your preference). There is so much utter deliciousness in this sandwich that you’ll literally close your eyes and savor it as you might ambrosia, the food of the gods.
Of course the name on the marquee is “Clam Shack” so it stands to reason that fried clams would be a specialty of this famous roadside stand. They are. Fresh and delicious clams fried to a golden hue and served in a traditional clam box are almost beyond good, beyond delicious. They are–at the risk of alienating my friend Bob Sherwood who hates the word–almost sublime. Save for a light batter, fried clams are unadulterated and simple, the essence of purity from the sea. A squeeze of lemon, some cocktail sauce. Forget it! Like green chile, fried clams should never be tampered with.
For a true New England dessert experience, many Clam Shack visitors will have a whoopie pie, a snack cake constructed by sandwiching a very sweet, creamy frosting between two round mounds of chocolate cake. Food historians indicate this sweet treat got its name because Amish farmers finding these treats in their lunch would shout “Whoopie!” Frankly, after consuming fried clams and lobster rolls, the whoopie pie might elicit a reaction more like “whatever.”
Highfalutin, well-heeled Kennebunkport loves the dowdy little roadside stand at the Kennebunk River bridge. You will, too!
The Clam Shack
2 Western Avenue (Route 9)
LATEST VISIT: 24 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pint of Whole Bellied Clams, Lobster Roll, Whoopie Pie