Cracking our hard exteriors

A meditation on mussels, clams, and oysters
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 27, 2014

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Briny, buttery, garlicky clams (and mussels) at Street and Company.

In our obsession with shellfish, Maine once again finds itself ahead of national trends. This weekend the New York Times acknowledged that we are in the midst of a “national oyster binge.”  Indeed. These days it is mollusks like oysters, mussels, and clams (rather than crustaceous shellfish, like lobster, crab, and shrimp) that best represent our collective emotional temperament.  Like the mollusk, we survive by desperately seeking to create hard shells that might protect the vulnerable infants that lie within. We seek to harden our bodies with yoga, CrossFit, and various manifestations of orthorexia. Or we project a tough, uncaring emotional state through indifferent-sounding texts to our lovers. “Whatever!” is our insouciant national catchphrase. 

If only we truly cared so little. Like the shellfish, our hard shells prove tragically vulnerable to infiltration — and when emotions overwhelm our defenses, the results are devastating to the delicate infant left exposed. Eating shellfish offers us a chance to viscerally experience, to ingest and incorporate, the culmination of our emotional fragility. Like an abused child who grows up to date a series of bullying alcoholics, we seek to revisit our vulnerability from a position of mastery. It helps to do it with drinks. 

To explore this phenomenon we started at Portland’s classic destination for serious seafood — Street and Co. on Wharf Street. Their large and handsome bar, much quieter than their bustling dining rooms, felt like a safe space to delve into our inner child along with a big bowl of shellfish. The soft light and old wood are comforting, even if the bench has a pew-like austerity.

The clam is the toughest of the mollusks, and seemed like the right point of entry for this journey into the soft interior. Our bowl of mahogany clams (from Maine’s coastal waters) appeared at first to have many small clams tucked into each shell. But those were cloves of garlic — stewed till soft and mellow. We feared the garlic would overwhelm the clam, but these were resilient little guys. They were surprisingly plump and tender, with a pleasant briny flavor. They stood up to the strong flavors and richness of the buttery, garlicky sauce, infused with herbs and spotted with salty chorizo.

The mussel comes nearer to our sad state — with its more fragile shell opening so easily at the suggestion of heat, just the way our defenses collapse in the face of any strong emotion. In this dish, Street and Co. wisely goes with a simpler sauce — less rich, with subtler garlic and some tang from white wine and lemon.  The mussels, their flesh the color of peaches, had a tender creamy texture and a mild flavor.

Eventide Oyster Co.’s whole space is half the size of Street and Co.’s bar. The open floor plan and large windows facing the street leave you feeling as exposed as the quivering oysters they shuck for you. While mussels and clams are often appreciated for the sauce a chef makes to show them off, the oyster is on its own — cool and raw in a puddle of its native water. 

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