by David Norton Stone
Clamcakes are delicious. There’s also something amusing about such a homely looking and improbable food, and people were laughing about clamcakes even in the 1800s.
In fact, the first reference I located to a clamcake (as opposed to a clam fritter) in print is in a book called My Diary in America in the Midst of War by George Augustus Sala, published in 1865 in London. The reference is a joke of sorts. Griping about the lack of mystery in American religion while attending a Fourth of July political celebration in New York City, Sala complains that “The ‘Episcopal Methodists’ have ‘hot turkey supper celebrations’ and the ‘Church of the Holy Trinity’ advertises a ‘clam-cake feast and strawberry ice cream festival.’” Nowadays, the funniest thing about this is the notion of clamcakes being served in New York.
Magazines are the most fertile source of clamcake humor. Here’s an example from Puck‘s “Puckerings,” with a vintage of August 8, 1883:
A man left the surf at Cape May not long ago, and rushed up to the cottage in which he boarded. They had fritters on the table. “Give me another clam-fritter,” he said, after he had finished the first. The plate was passed to him. He took one, ate it, and said: “Give me another clam-fritter.” He got another, and said, this time to the landlady: “Will you please pass the clam-fritters?” “Them ain’t clam-fritters,” replied the lady. “Ain’t clam-fritters?” gasped the boarder. “No.” “Then what are they?” “Corn-fritters.” “Well, I’m blowed!” said the guest: “I ate seven of them, and thought they were full of chopped clams.” After luncheon the landlady remarked to her sister that the surf was such an appetizing affair that corn could be palmed off on bathers for chopped clams, and that stewed tripe passed for chicken fricassee, and that she would make enough money this season to take her to Europe in the winter.
Clamcakes (or at least a corn imitation) in Cape May, New Jersey! This story reminds me of jokes that you still hear today about the difficulty of finding an actual bit of clam in a clamcake. But there are some people who prefer their clamcakes relatively clam-free and who prefer the merest hint of seashore taste in their fritters. In fact, a friend of mine likes to say, “There’s no crying in baseball, and no clams in clamcakes.”
Nineteenth century humorists enjoyed making fun of the numerous ways clams were enjoyed in Rhode Island (and elsewhere). Take this “Out of Town” item from the August 1889 Judge’s Serial:
At a Stamford Hotel.
Guest: “Bill-of-fare, waiter.”
Waiter: “Bill-of what?”
Waiter: “Wait’ll yerget yerfare, an’yer’ll be blamed sure to git a bill of it. What yer want?”
Guest: “What have you?”
Waiter: “Boiled clams, clam fritters, stewed clams, fricasseed clams, roast clams, clam patties, chopped clams, clam hash, and clams.”
Guest: “Give me some plain clams.”
Waiter: “Now you’re talkin’. Peck’r nudes in a bucket, Jimmy.”
No one disputed that clams and fritters belonged together. The February 14, 1889 edition of The American Stationer told this Valentine of a story: “Miss Clam, of Bad Man’s Gulch, Ariz., recently married a Mr. Fritter, and now she has her cards printed ‘Mrs. Clam-Fritter.’ This marriage could not possibly turn out a failure. The lady was good enough and sweet eno’ to eat.”
The writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about a Rhode Island clambake he experienced on August 15, 1871. Nine years earlier, Higginson had received a letter from a shy young woman named Emily Dickinson enclosing some poems. Tom told her they had promise, but warned her not to try to publish them because she used too many dashes and her poems were a little weird. So Tom continued his life as a celebrated author, while Emily Dickinson toiled in obscurity in Amherst. To this day, the name Thomas Wentworth Higginson is synonymous with bad career advice. Is it any wonder then that this same man dissed Rocky Point clamcakes?
Here we are soaking up a day at the Rhode Island shore with Thomas Higginson, while poor Emily Dickinson never even saw the sea. Higginson is in conversation with a shore dinner waiter from Rocky Point:
He had served tables, it appeared, at Rocky Point, the climax and glory of “shore” places; he knew what waiting should be; he knew what to exact from his humbler fellows, and by what taunts to rouse their flagging ambition. He pointed out and encouraged those who excelled, and gave me the names and genealogies of the more eminent waiters, and especially of the chief of staff at Rocky Point, who could carry on his arm no less than sixteen plates of clam-cakes “to wonst.”
“The baked clams,” he obligingly told me, “is the only clean things to these dinners. You won’t get a waiter to eat a shore dinner; they know too much. Have their separate meal. Pie and tea.” [What a picture!].
—”A Day of Scottish Games” by T.W. Higginson, Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. 3-22.
Telling Emily Dickinson not to publish was strike one against Higginson in my book. Strike two is that he sums up his clam bake experience by telling the world that he hopes he never has to attend another one. Even though he has eaten moose, bear and alligator with pleasure, he is just not into clams. By the way, the clamcakes at the meal Higginson wrote about were served for dessert! That’s pretty funny itself.
The favorite discovery I made in the course of my research into the annals of clamcake humor is an extremely rare (I know of only eight copies that exist) and entirely forgotten book called The Tale of the Clam, An Historical Reminiscence of Rhode Island, Explaining the True Origin of Clambakes. The authors are “Two Providence Boys.” This work was published in Providence by a company called Tibbits, Shaw & Co. in 1883.
The cover of this slender book (just a longish, illustrated poem really) shows a clam kneeling in front of an aproned chef, who threatens the clam with two long knives. A book called Cookery of Clams is in plain view next to the chef. With the type of swagger all of us Rhode Islanders adopt when writing about bivalves, the Two Providence Boys call it an “epic” and begin with the obligatory tribute to the muses. The story begins in the 1800s with a man on the beach digging for a clam. After a lot of effort, he pulls the clam from the muck. The man is flummoxed about what to do with his prey, but decides that the best course is to chop him up and fry him in a clamcake. But this is a talking clam. In pleading for a nobler death, he tells his tale. It’s a first person plea from the clam asking to be spared the fate of being chopped up and fried in a clamcake.
This long-lived clam narrates a bizarre story about King Phillip and Roger Williams, that purports to explain the historical accident that led to the first clambake. One day in the 1600s, the Wampanoag sachem Metacom, or King Philip as he was known to the colonists, went to visit his mother. She was hungry and asked Philip for a clam, so he dug up the unnamed clam who is the star of this epic, as well as his younger brother. Philip gives the clams to his mother and leaves to go hunting. In the meantime, some other Indians have played a trick on Roger Williams by trading him a skunk pelt. In retaliation, Williams steals the clams from Philip’s mother. The Wampanoags paint a stone green and heat it up, then throw it at Roger Williams hoping he will think it’s a watermelon, and pick it up, burning himself. Instead, Roger puts the little brother clam on the rock, and little brother then bakes to death. This, according to the Two Providence Boys is the historical origin of the clambake. But our history lesson is not over yet, because Roger Williams then proceeds to dice up the Indians. The illustration of the body parts rather disturbingly looks like clams diced for a fritter. The older brother clam, meanwhile, runs as fast as its little clam legs will take him, across Narragansett Bay, where he had evaded capture until his current calamity.
His tale over, the clam pleads for mercy. In particular, he begs that he and his liquor not become the clam and seashore flavoring in a clamcake. The man takes pity and swallows the raw quahog whole, like a cherrystone. “Our hero puckered up his lips,/ And whistled for his pup;/ our epic ends, the tale is done, the clam is gobbled up.”
It’s hard to say what’s more insensitive, the text or the illustration, to the native Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians they lampoon. Even Roger Williams has his halo tarnished. Some of the illustrations, however, are simply amazing, evoking the carefree spirit of a summer day, with the flair of French Impressionism. It is clear that this Providence Boy had talent, and it is not surprising that this book found favor with a publisher. But who was he and did he continue to work as an artist? I may be the only person alive to have figured that out (or who cares).
I had a couple of clues. The library’s catalogue actually identified the Providence lads as John Henshaw and Henry B. Dearth. I asked the librarian if there were any record of where they came up with those names. From their records, the attribution came from the National Union Catalog of Pre-1956 Imprints, a mammoth listing of books catalogued by the Library of Congress and other libraries. The cataloguer lifted the information from there, as the library doesn’t do its own cataloguing. The trail was cold.
I then tried to see if I could discover anything about John Henshaw or Henry B. Dearth. Perhaps I was right to spot promise in those drawings. There was a celebrated American painter named Henry Golden Dearth, who was born in Bristol in 1863. In his later years, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and, after winning prizes for his landscapes of the Normandy Coast, spent winters in New York city and summers in Normandy. I wish my research budget allowed to travel to Normandy to find his house and studio in Montreuil-sur-Mer, along the English Channel. An appreciation of his work that appeared in Century Magazine in 1905 praised his painting “Sunset in Normandy for its “almost naive arrangement of trees, earth and sky, the cattle being the merest suggestions.” It would not be any surprise that this dignified painter put his boyish tale of the clam behind him.
But his middle initial was G and not B. What are the odds that there were two artistic boys named Henry Dearth running around Rhode Island in the 1800s? Well, it turns out there were. Unfortunately, the historical record on Henry B. Dearth is not as complete as for Henry G. However, I have located an advertisement for the firm of Ryder and Dearth, Designers, Engravers, Printers & Electrotypers, located at 91 Westminster Street in Providence. The advertisement is full of funny sketches of the Designers’ Room, the Photo Gallery, the Wood Engraving Department and other aspects of the enterprise. There is no question that the boy who made the pictures for The Tale of The Clam grew up to be the man who made the drawings for this advertisement. The sense of humor is as recognizable as the artistry.
John Henshaw, who wrote the poetry, graduated from Brown in 1887 (in the same class as Theodore Francis Greene) and, in a loss to light verse, later became a lawyer in Providence. It gives me pleasure to unmask the identity of these once anonymous, naughty Providence boys who, in my opinion, were the greatest Nineteenth Century clamcake humorists of all.
There is only one animal with a lifespan long enough to have been laughing at clamcake humor from the 1800s to today. That is the quahog itself, which has been found to live as long as 400 years.
David Norton Stone is the author of Clamcake Summer (2012), Stuffie Summer (2013), and the forthcoming Chowder Summer. A graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School, Yale and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Stone lives in New York City and Warwick, Rhode Island, and once worked at the former Rocky Point amusement park, which made some world famous, and sorely missed, clamcakes.