The fried clams and lobster rolls at Bite of Boston (3292 Governor Dr.) in University City are poor reflections of the dishes I remember from my New England college years. Flawed? Yes. But they send me back to a place I had not been in a while—a place I miss.
And that sent me back to a debate in my junior year Literary Criticism class (second floor, Chapin Hall, Amherst College) regarding Matthew Arnold's assertion that the role of criticism was "to see the object as in itself it really is." David Foster Wallace (the late, noted author and subject of biopic The End of the Tour) defended Arnold's objective approach, saying psychological, historical and sociological background are irrelevant. I argued that excluding subjective resonance was both impossible and undesirable.
Tasting Bite of Boston's fried clams, I felt sure Wallace would have seen them as poor representations of the thing itself. Ipswich-style clams are soft-shell clams dipped in evaporated milk, coated with a combination of regular, corn and/or pastry flour, deep fried in oil or lard. While Bite of Boston uses both the neck and belly of what it claims are Ipswich clams (I have my doubts), the poor adherence of breading to the clams yielded a greasy product with bellies slightly underdone. But they were still fried clams, still tasty and with every clam I was transported back to Woodman's of Essex, a good place to be.
The story was much the same with the lobster roll: classically big chunks of juicy lobster meat bound together by just enough mayonnaise and just enough celery, lettuce and/or peppers to pull the entire thing together. Wallace would have noted the classic upright buns but also observed the lobster was as stringy as it is chunky, and the meat-to-mayo ratio tilted decidedly in favor of Hellman's. Still, I've always enjoyed a lobster roll and could not help but fondly remember my last time at Belle Isle Seafood in Winthrop.
New England-style clam chowder is traditionally milk or cream based, flavored with a hit of pork and with potatoes, onions and clams but definitely not tomatoes (that would be Manhattan style). Wallace would probably have liked this "chowdah" but noted it was a long drink of cream light on that clam-pork brothy goodness and, frankly, on the clams themselves. Not bad for west of the Berkshires though.
Objectively, Bite of Boston's best objective representations were its submarine sandwiches, especially the Northender and Boston Big-Timer. The latter was particularly well-executed: turkey, ham, roast beef and cheese with lettuce, diced onions, pickles, tomatoes, hot peppers, seasonings and oil. It was a great representation of exactly what it purported to be. Wallace would have lauded it and I respected it. But I didn't love it.
Seeing a work—or a dish—clearly and objectively is no doubt important. But ignoring its context and impact on the subconscious, on sentiment (so much the subject of David Foster Wallace's books) is to ignore fully half the work. Arnold might have panned Bite of Boston and for reasons with which I wouldn't argue. But I loved it anyway.