New England Seafood Shacks, I Love You


As the weather changes, there is one summer memory that stays with me: the New England fish shack. They’re closed for the season now, but from the time they open in late May to their seasonal closing sometime in September, there is no place I would rather eat than one of these casual maritime places that dot the coast from Connecticut to Maine. The way they bookend the summer feels magical to me, and the food served so strongly represents a time and place that I fantasize about it during the autumn and winter months.

All along the Northeastern seaboard, the shacks might have a slightly different style — some picturesque weathered wood decorated with lobster traps and buoys, and some utilitarian cinderblock squares. But like separate chapters of one big story, they reflect the long history of New England’s working relationship to the water, from Maine to Connecticut.

I know my viewpoint on their origin story is overly romantic, but I imagine watermen who needed to feed their families adding bread to bulk up their daily catch, which ultimately created New England’s seafood shack classics, like Maine’s famous lobster roll. In 1604, the state was the site of the first recorded European colony, and according to the Department of Marine Resources, lobster fishing is probably the oldest, continuously operated industry in North America.

Back then, lobster was not the luxury it is today but, rather, an abundant, everyday food — and not even a popular one. Indentured servants, who exchanged labor for passage to colonial America, had it written into their contracts that they would not have to eat lobster more than three times a week, and a law guaranteed prisoners the same protection (cruel and unusual punishment by crustacean). In 2021, about 108 million pounds were caught, and some of that gorgeously moist, freshly caught lobster ends up at Maine’s roadside stands. But it no longer comes cheaply. I imagine the looks on the faces of those watermen if they saw some lobster meat on a hotdog roll selling for $40 today.

And the lobster roll isn’t what draws me to the New England coast — although when I do eat one, it is most likely to be from Little Harbor Lobster Company, a family business carrying on a century-old commercial fishing and lobstering tradition in Marblehead, Massachusetts. For me, it’s all about clam chowder — in all its versions — and my very favorite, the clam roll: deep-fried breaded whole or full-bellied clams, especially Ipswich clams, which have a thin, brittle shell that doesn’t completely close because of its protruding long neck or siphon, a shoreline staple along the Connecticut coast.

Although Lenny’s Fish Tale in Madison, Connecticut, no longer looks anything like it did when I first started going there 30 years ago, when it was nothing but a white wooden shack with a few picnic tables, the lesson I learned from Lenny himself prevails. He taught me that when it comes to deep-frying, the breading must form a protective crust on contact with the hot oil. That seal is what produces the internal steam necessary to properly cook the clam, and in the process, create a sandwich of delicious contrasts: crispy but tender. Even if it were possible to recreate seafood shack food at home, I don’t even try — It’s not the point for me. Rather, as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock would say, “I want to go to there.” 

Trying to recreate seafood-shack food at home is like watching a cover band — it might seem okay at first, but…nah. So I’ve adapted two favorites that work great in your kitchen and keep the memories alive.

Corn and Scallop Chowder 

This is a light but rich soup and can serve four people as first course. Also note that scallops have gotten very expensive, so you can just go with one per serving of soup as garnish. You can also eat the chowder on its own, or make a little extra bacon to float on top.

Although you don’t need a lot of bacon to make this chowder, the bacon you do use should be the best you can buy. Cooking with the rendered fat is what gives the undercurrent of smoky flavor to this sweet chowder, and so you want those 6 ounces to count. A good option you can find in many specialty supermarkets is Niman Ranch, made without added nitrates or nitrites and containing no artificial flavors or ingredients, in the mild applewood-smoked version rather than the intense hickory-smoked, which is much too strong for this dish. 

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