Clamfest!

 

THE FAMILY OF THE LATE, GREAT FRENCH CHEF PIERRE FRANEY—OF THE NEW YORK TIMES AND THE 60 MINUTE GOURMET—GATHERS IN SUMMER TO TRADE RECIPES AND COMPETE IN A HIGH-SPIRITED BIVALVE BATTLE. DAVID GIBBONS GETS THE DISH

 

The spirit of Pierre Franey is alive and well at his family’s compound on Gerard Drive in Springs — and in their family clamfests, lively gatherings involving the nearly 20 members of the clan and up to 30 friends and neighbors. A native of land-locked northern Burgundy, Pierre Franey and his wife, Betty, fell in love with East Hampton in the mid-1950s. He took great pleasure in clamming and whiled away many a happy hour harvesting juicy bivalves from the sands of Accabonac Harbor.

Franey, who died in 1996, was at the forefront of a wave of young French chefs who immigrated to America in the mid-20th century. He came as a cook under chef Henri Soulé for the French Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, and stayed when Soulé opened a permanent location of Le Pavillon in Manhattan. The restaurant’s glorious heyday as the preeminent temple of gastronomy this side of the Atlantic was the 1950s; Franey worked his way up to executive chef. He was collegial and garrulous, personable and welcoming — often not the case with his industry compatriots. Indeed, many of them were hard men, Soulé included. In 1960, Franey split from Soulé after a bitter dispute over staffing and wages. It was a fortuitous denouement: Franey began collaborating with his friend Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food writer and longtime resident of Springs, on The 60-Minute Gourmet. The success of the column lead to a series of cookbooks, public-television shows, and fame and fortune as a master simplifier and popularizer of fine French cuisine for the American home chef.

The Franeys’ three children, Claudia, Diane, and Jacques, are still prominent members of the community. Diane lives year round in the family compound’s main house; Claudia enjoys frequent weekends and holidays in her summer cottage next door. From the patriarch emerged a matriarchy: Diane has five daughters, ages 26 to 39, and eight grandchildren (8 months to 11 years old). Everybody cooks—even Jacques, who’s usually busy running his business, Domaine Franey Wines and Spirits. They share fond memories of the epic clambakes organized by their father and executed with a little help from his many friends, including a legion from the ranks of New York City’s culinary elite.It was on Cape Cod that Franey, père, witnessed his first old-time New England clambake, a two-to-three-day effort that starts with collecting more than a handful of large rocks and hundreds of pounds of seaweed. A pit is dug, the rocks are heated over a wood fire to create a big in-ground oven, which is filled with alternating layers of food — chicken, potatoes, corn, lobster, clams — and seaweed, covered and allowed to steam to impressive and delicious results. Franey, characteristically, declared, “We can do that!” And so he did, at his place on the shore of Gardiner’s Bay.

Today’s clamfests represent a modern adaptation of those epic feasts of yore. “They were such a huge production,” Diane said not long ago, during an interview with her and her sister Claudia at the compound. “Now the beach out front has basically disappeared. We couldn’t do them here anymore,” she said, pointing to the grass at the edge of the property, fronted by a drop-off and the shimmering waters of the bay beyond. “There was so much erosion, we had to build a revetment.” Given their lofty culinary pedigree, the Franeys are a casual, low-key bunch whose passion for good food and the local harvest runs deep. Diane initiated the family clamfests in 2010; the fourth was held last July. Everyone clams together either the day before or the morning of. The fests also include a prize for the heaviest clam harvested, a clam-decorating table, and games of boules. The cook-off winner is rewarded with a medal; runners-up get grab-bag gifts, which have ranged from a clam-theme apron to a giant zucchini.

Entrants in the 2017 family clamfest included hot peppers stuffed with clams and deep-fried. Photo by Diane Franey.
 

“The first year, we all came back and cooked together in my kitchen,” said Diane. “It was a disaster. I think it took a week to clean up.” Laura Robbins, a longtime family friend and neighbor, won the first cook-off with her adaptation of Clams With Black Bean Sauce, published in both a New York Times Magazine article and Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School by Grace Zia Chu (Fireside, 1975). “I served the clams standing up,” Robbins said. “It was all about the presentation.” Asked to summon some of the past’s best and worst recipes, Claudia and Diane chimed in unison: “Clam brownies!” “Those were hard to swallow,” said Diane, whose daughter Tanya was their creator. “One year I did clam quesadilalas, which I thought should have won,” Diane added. Claudia once won with her version of her father’s pasta with white clams and green beans, finished with a dab of cream.

Other highlights: clam pizza, and bloody Marys with fresh clam juice. Normal libations include dark ’n’ stormies, for cocktails, and a choice of a rosé or chablis. In 2016, another of Diane’s daughters, Noelle, a private chef out of Sag Harbor, won with her recipe for grilled clams (below). Diane’s youngest daughter, Lucia, a yoga instructor who also waitresses at Bostwick’s Chowder House, won top honors in 2017 with a deep-fried, clam-stuffed jalapeño pepper. Jacques’s daughter, Raphaelle (“Raffi”), and her boyfriend, Kyle Lucianna, came in a close second with their Clam Cake Bites With Garlic Pepper Sauce. • 

 

 

NOELLE FRANEY'S GRILLED CLAMS

• 4 dozen Littleneck clams
(about 2 inches in diameter)
• 3 sticks unsalted butter
• 1 Tb. vegetable oil
• 1 large shallot, minced
• 2 jalapeño peppers, minced
(remove seeds and stems)
• 2 Tb. red pepper flakes (optional)
• 5 limes, juiced
• 1 cup Champagne vinegar
• 1 cup white wine
• 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
• 1 lemon, cut into small wedges

Prepare gas or charcoal grill and heat to medium-high. Cut butter into half-inch-thick chunks and refrigerate until ready to use. Place vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium heat; add shallot, jalapeño, and red pepper flakes (if using), and sweat for about 2 minutes. Do not brown. Stir lime juice, vinegar, and wine into sauce. Bring to a boil and cook until liquid is reduced to about 4 tablespoons. Reduce heat to low and whisk in 1 chunk of butter. Remove pot halfway from heat and whisk in remaining chunks of butter, one at a time, until melted. Do not allow sauce to boil. Scrub clams under cold running water to remove any sand or mud. Place clams on grill, horizontally, close grill lid, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes until they open. (Discard any unopened clams.) Remove clams from grill, keeping them horizontal so juice does not spill out, arrange in a shallow serving bowl or deep platter, pour sauce on them, garnish with chopped parsley, fresh herbs, and lemon wedges, and serve with a crusty baguette for dipping.

 

Top: Pierre Franey (seen in Springs in August, 1972) was legenday French chef, a hard-clam expert, and perennial presence at the Fisherman’s Fair at Ashawagh Hall. John Reed / East Hampton Star archive. 

 

David Gibbons

Gibbons is a former sports writer, literary agent, book producer, and publishing executive who’s been a freelance editor and writer for the past two decades. Dave grew up in Princeton, N.J., where he remembers seeing John Forbes Nash pace the sidewalks in his Burberry raincoat and red Converse high-tops, muttering to himself. He has ghost-written six cookbooks for chefs and, with Max McCalman, co-written three books about cheese, one of which won a James Beard award. Gibbons currently writes the cheese column for Wine Spectator and was the most prolific contributor to "The Oxford Companion to Cheese." Andy Warhol once spilled a drink on his shoes at a party and said, "Oh, sorry."