Raw vs. Cooked Seafood: A Debate Better Had Before This Happens

Are one of these the culprit?

Last week, I bought one bad clam, along with approximately a hundred of its siblings, from a perfectly respectable (and totally blameless) fish monger. The clam sojourned briefly in my refrigerator and then spent an hour or so atop my stove, in the company of tomatoes, coconut milk, chiles, and cilantro. The clam and its siblings were then laid across a bed of thin rice noodles and gobbled up by me, my partner, and two dinner guests.

I'd never cooked clams before, and hadn't intended to. Last Saturday, one of my dinner guests said he and his partner rather liked seafood, and I set about planning a dinner of maki rolls and unagi-don. Then, on Monday, the day before our date, this guest mentioned: "Oh, by the way -- we love seafood, but not sushi."

So much for maki. As we ate our clams Tuesday evening, I asked my guest why he and his partner didn't like sushi, and his response struck me as incredibly retrograde. "Well, it's raw," he said, giving me a look that suggested the wrongness of rawness ought to be self-evident.

"And?" I inquired, around a mouthful of poison.

"That's just not safe!" he said. I didn't argue with him then. But now, as I venture gingerly
out of the bed and sit here in my bathrobe, typing slowly, thinking groggily, and feeling generally like a rotted husk of myself, I feel the disagreement's worth reviving.

This is not my first experience with food poisoning. I am so afflicted every few years, and the culprit is almost always seafood. Twice it was lobster; on three occasions it was clams. Once I was brought low by a scallop. Each time, the tainted dish has been thoroughly cooked.

In fact, it's difficult to be poisoned by raw seafood. It is inevitably handled with far more care than cooked seafood. Consider bivalves -- clams, oysters, etc. If you eat them at a restaurant, they have been handled individually by professionals with considerable bivalvic experience, who are likely to notice the telltale signs of corruption and rot. The shell opens too easily, or else emits the smell of low tide.

If the professionals at a raw bar fail to note the taint -- which they've never done in my restaurant-going experience, but let's say it happens -- then a half-observant eater surely will. There's the dead animal, sitting upon your plate, raw and unadorned. if it looks or smells ugly, you won't want to eat it.

These observations are almost impossible to make when your bivalves are cooked and sitting at the bottom of a stew. My worst-ever bout of food poisoning hit me in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, after a tasty but ridiculously overpriced meal at what was allegedly that little town's best restaurant. The dish was Maine lobster with crab stuffing and clams, all of which came served, steaming hot, in a shallow pool of butter and garlic. Despite their many virtues, butter and garlic make an excellent camouflage for rot. I sang the praises of my evil dinner for three hours, right up until the moment my digestive tract seemed to split in two, and attempted to escape from my poor, doomed body through any available exit. (My $50 entree made me sick for a week. At the time, I was in Rhode Island to celebrate my father's impending wedding, and when I ate my poisoned dinner, I'd just been fitted for a tux. By wedding day, I'd shed ten pounds on account of that dread lobster, and in my tux I looked like a flagpole on a windless day.) 

It's even harder to poison somebody with raw fish than with raw shellfish. Shellfish is, in some sense, an acquired taste. Put a fresh-shucked oyster in front of the average three-year-old, and the three-year-old will not immediately realize that she has been offered food. That's not the case with tuna, salmon, or mackerel. Natural selection has equipped our species with brains that readily interpret the qualities of fresh fish as signs of edibleness. Its texture, flavor, and scent all scream of deliciousness. If one of these qualities should go missing, even unsophisticated eaters can tell. The dish is returned, the fillet is tossed.

I'm haunted by the thought that I might have inadvertently poisoned my dinner guests. I didn't, but I could have. I thought I'd inspected my clams thoroughly before tossing them in the pot. But if I hadn't tossed them in the pot at all, I would have noticed the tainted clam's limp shell or odd smell as I pried it open. Failing that, I would have caught its malignant whiff as I hoisted it to my mouth, or tasted its tidal wretchedness on the tip of my tongue and spat it out. Hopefully, my dinner guests would have done the same. As it happened, with the poison camo'd beneath the many flavors of my (thoroughly delicious) stew, none of us stood a chance. If the befouled clam had wound up in their dish rather than mine, they would have spent the week in bed, more afraid of seafood than ever.

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I have two dozen clams I had intended to pairperth chorizo tonight. Im having serious second thoughts.

John L.
John L.

Likewise, an open shell before cooking is a sign of a bad shellfish. 


Curious: did all the clams open? After you cooked them? I thought in addition to playing castanets when they're raw, you could avoid a bad clam by taking heed of the closed shells once the others have opened.

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