Days Gone Bite: Howard Johnson's Fried Clams
In the '60s and '70s it was almost impossible to travel any distance without spotting a bright orange roof and that Simple Simon weathervane. There were close to 1,000 Howard Johnson's restaurants back then, each of them serving 28 flavors of ice cream and platefuls of fried clams.
The clams were small yet meaty, with a thick and crinkly veil of batter fried to a beautiful golden brown. A menu staple since the first Howard Johnson restaurant opened, they had been revamped by one Jacques Pepin--so despite being frozen in some corporate kitchen and trucked around the country, they had some culinary cachet.
Yeah, the menu did list other items--but to what purpose? As far as I was concerned at the time, HoJo's clam strips represented the peak of fried shellfish perfection.
Diners in New England debate the validity of strips versus whole clams, bellies and all. Advocates of the latter point out--correctly--that whole clams are not only more delicate, but also present more pronounced flavors. Strips can be tougher, akin to overcooked calamari.
On the other hand, Howard Johnson's strips carried enough of the sweet-briny flavor of clam to convince you of its seafood pedigree. And that chewy texture made a nice contrast to the rich, reassuring crunch of their crust.
But just maybe circumstance plays a role in my memory of HoJo's. I've had fried clams at The Clam Box in (I think) Ipswich, Massachusetts--as well as at the two famous Boston area fried clam stops, Woodman's and Farnham's. However good, the first thought was always "but of course, they should know how to make them here." My experience with Howard Johnson's, on the other hand, was along landlocked stretches of highway, where the thought of decent fried clams seemed special.
My family used to stop at the Howard Johnson's in Jacksonville, Illinois, on the way to Cardinals games. This was in the 70s, as the chain approached its moment of demise--which started gradually, after the Johnson heirs sold out to a British company in 1979. The Brits failed to make a go of it and unloaded the non-franchise locations on Marriott, which began dismantling the old orange roof restaurants.
Granted, some were shabby and population shifts had left others in less than desirable settings. But these were icons, as recognizable as the golden arches--though somehow more meaningful.
There are now only three Howard Johnson's restaurants left from a roadside empire that once stretched from coast to coast.
So I guess it would be difficult to find out if their fried clams were ever as good as I remember.