For two summers, every Saturday and Sunday, almost without fail, the main meal of our day was a fried clam plate -- french fries, coleslaw, fried clams with big, fat, juicy bellies -- from McIntyre's in Rowley, Mass., and a cold beer or two at a picnic table out back under the trees.

Those were the days, skiing on the waters off Ipswich, beach parties on Plum Island and -- if the Red Sox weren't playing -- Maybellene on the car radio.

A major mid-week decision was whether to boo Don Buddin from behind the bullpen in Fenway Park, or seek an evening's pleasures in Gloucester, Essex and Ipswich -- those pleasures including, though not exclusively, fried clams from Woodman's and the Clam Box.

For a New Englander, it's debatable whether summer in Washington is preferable to death. There's the weather, of course, and the Bostons visit the Orioles in Baltimore only twice. But, more than that, you cannot buy a lobster roll or, more to the point, "fried clams to go" here.

Lobster rolls are delicious, but everybody who tries them likes lobster rolls. Fried clams, on the other hand, are even more delicious, perhaps because not everybody loves them, especially people from away. They are an acquired taste, like the Red Sox.

It is said that you can't go back again, and that may be true in part -- I'd hate now to take a spill off the skis in those cold waters, there are summer cottages all over Plum Island and the Red Sox are, all things considered, entertainment of a higher quality than they were. But, fried clams are still the coastal New England fast food. Unfortunately, they're there and I'm here.

However, several weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a trip down Memory Lane, a Memory Lane that happened to have several hundred miles of clam places -- Ellsworth, Maine, to Essex, Massachusetts. That's from the Gateway to Acadia National Park to the Capital of Fried Clamdom. With or without the clams, it's a beautiful drive and an odyssey I'd recommend even to someone who doesn't share a taste for fried clams.

When I started, Wade Boggs was hitting under .350 and I hadn't had a fried clam in approximately nine months and 28 days. When it was over, Boggs' average was over .370, still climbing and pitchers had had enough of him, but I still hadn't had my fill of fried clams.

Fried clams cannot be rated on a bell curve. There's seldom a down side. They are almost always delicious, unless they are cooked in batter, creating a fritter with a tiny clam core, in which case they're always bad. (Ironically, they would probably rate quite high in a fritter judging.) And don't even mention fried clam strips a la HoJo's and the Jersey shore. Oh, the menu may say they're fried clams. But they're not. They're fried strips of clam without the best part, the belly; or even, once in a while, fried cherrystone clams. But they're not fried clams.

Softshell (or steamer) clams are the basic ingredient of fried clams. Shucked clams are dipped in a wash of milk and/or egg, dredged in flour and/or yellow corn flour and/or cracker crumbs and deep-fried in animal and/or vegetable oil to a golden tan color. A lot of variables. They should have a slight crunch when eaten -- with ketchup or tartar sauce or, better yet, plain -- except for the belly, which should be juicy and tasty, obscured not even in the slightest by the taste of the oil in which it is cooked or the mixture in which it is dipped to be dried.

Many, many New England sit-down restaurants have fried clams and many are very, very good, but to really get the flavor you have to order at the "order" window, pick up at the "pick up" window and eat with your fingers in the car or at the picnic tables out back.

So, let's get started. Jordan's Snack Bar in Ellsworth, on Route 1 east of the cutoff to Bar Harbor and Acadia, is the kind of place to look for -- order from a sign that includes fried scallops, haddock and onion rings, and lobster rolls, and wait for your number to be called. Jordan's has become a frequent stop for me in recent years, a sometimes-twice-a-day habit, and this was my first -- but it won't be my last -- visit of 1987 to Jordan's.

The fried clams came out the window looking just as they should look and went down tasting just as they should taste. Whatever the effort, whatever the touch required, one cannot disagree when Jimmy Jordan, who owns and operates the business along with his wife, Carol Jean, says fried clams are "the hardest thing to cook in seafood. I call it an art."

"They talk to me," says Jimmy Jordan, in explaining why, of all the variables, the skill of the cook may be the most important. "I can be anywhere in the kitchen and hear when it's time for them to be pulled. Five seconds off can be bad."

Jordan gets his clams, shucked and by the gallon, from Maine Shellfish Co., Inc., of Ellsworth. Except that he insists on all small clams ("My customers want them small"), Jordan gets the same clams as many of his competitors.

Jim Markos, Jr., general manager of Maine Shellfish, an independent corporation owned by Ipswich Shellfish Co., Inc., says that "the big difference in fried clams is not really the clam; it's the preparation and the cooking."

Heading up (west, the opposite of down east) Route 1, one comes to Waldoboro, Moody's Diner and confirmation of Markos' assertion. Moody's is an anachronism, a real diner, and as such has acquired enough fame that Moody's Diner postcards are sold and sent. On the other hand, the fried clams ("fellow in town shucks 'em," said co-manager Bill Jones) were soggy and if there is another side of the bell curve, Moody's is clinging to it. So, while some would say a visit to Maine is incomplete without a meal at Moody's, others would say stopping at Moody's does not necessarily make your trip. What it does do, however, is help set the parameters for personal judgment.

Next stop, in South Freeport, was Harraseeket Lunch, the last place on the right before Main Street dead ends at the harbor. Because of the location, and also because the clams are very good, Saturday night traffic jams can be almost as bad as in Freeport proper around L.L. Bean's, Maine's leading tourist attraction. Some of the clams were also very big, although Connie Coffin, one of the owners, said they do not consciously try to have big clams. Twice a month, at the exceptionally low tides, way out on the mud flats where the diggers harvest less often, the clams get a chance to grow larger, according to Markos, and Harraseeket just happened to hit that tide. Harraseeket also offers fried clams in batter ("please specify," says the sign), but only a tourist (and Freeport is loaded with them) would buy batter ("Anybody who would eat them is crazy," said Markos).

The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport is on Route 9 right next to the drawbridge, just a half-pint order away from the Bush family compound. And if the fried clams were cooked just a mussel's hair darker than most of the others on the tour, they were still small, crunchy and delicious, so stop and get some before dropping in on the vice president. Or, wait until you're out in his speed boat and ask him to stop by the Clam Shack; "the water's right out back," noted owner Richard Jacques. Eat in the boat; the Clam Shack is a two-window operation, with no sit-down facilities, although lots of tourists munch as they stroll through downtown Kennebunkport.

The last stop in Maine, on Route 1 in York, was at El's, where the clams were just about perfect -- fat, succulent bellies -- just as they have been since 1945. Robert Kent, a member of the third generation to run El's, says the place was named for his grandmother, Eleanor. The little shack his grandparents opened at the end of World War II is still there -- "We're going to keep it, people like to look in the windows" -- but now El's operates out of a larger building that also has self-serve sit-down eating and even has clam strips on the menu because of requests from Canadians. "The locals pretty much stay away from them," said Kent.

There was a time during the late '60s and early '70s when the fried clams at McIntyre's in Rowley, Mass., on Route 133, just south of Route 1, did not measure up to earlier standards. Manager Bob Howard, the owner's son, acknowledged the slippage. No longer, however. They were crunchy, light in color, of uniform, average size with big juicy bellies -- as good as ever, none better.

The Clam Box, on Route 1A on the Rowley side of Ipswich, is a building shaped like the containers clams-to-go used to come in, wider at the top than the bottom. Attached to one of the pretend open flaps at the top of the building is a sign that says "Famous ... Since 1935." So famous, in fact, that the Clam Box is a regular winner in periodic New England media surveys to uncover the best fried clam. Actually, they looked the same and they tasted the same as McIntyre's, but left more oil on the paper bag they were served in.

Finally, Woodman's on Route 133 in Essex, where Chubby Woodman started the fried clam craze in 1916. He handed the business to his son Dexter and now Steve Woodman notes that he is one of Dexter's six sons and daughters working in the operation, along with "in-laws and nieces and nephews and grandchildren plus anyone else we can grab." And, the clams? They looked the same and they tasted the same as the Clam Box's and McIntyre's. As for oil residue? About midway between the other two.

Interestly, Woodman's uses lard for cooking, while the Clam Box and McIntyre's use an animal/vegetable blend, as does El's, while the others on the tour use vegetable oil. Whatever the oil, however, everybody stresses the necessity of clean oil. Jacques says he uses fresh oil every day; Jordan filters his every night and replaces it after 4-5 days.

When it was all over, picking the best fried clam was tougher than calling a third strike on Wade Boggs. Probably the best were the three from Maryland.

Maryland? At the time, the clam flats in Ipswich and Essex weren't producing and the three places in Massachusetts were using Maryland clams. Ipswich Shellfish also owns United Shellfish Co., Inc., of Grasonville, Md., and Neal Belcher, sales manager of United, noted that "probably about 50 percent of our clams go up to our New England {Ipswich} plant."

According to Markos, "there's essentially no market for clams in Maryland, but it's a heavy producer." Added Markos, "For someone who knows, there's a perceptible difference among clams from different places. Maryland clams are more uniform in size and have a little bigger belly and may be better for fried clams, but are not as good for steaming. I may be chauvinistic but I think Maine clams are tastier."

All of which means that, unlike frozen fish sticks, fried clams from any given place may very well vary in product and price from time to time.

Anyway, why no fried clams here? Actually, there are, though not easily found. O'Donnell's in Bethesda makes very good fried clams, but the Ispwich fried clam platter had more french fries than clams, take-out is not available and it's not the kind of place where you feel comfortable eating with your fingers.

However, just over the drawbridge from Kent's Island, heading for the Eastern Shore, is a place that's as comfortable as a clam digger's favorite waders -- and the clams aren't bad either. Droter's Anglers Marina could have been picked up in Bailey Island, Maine, and set down in Grasonville without spilling a glass of draught beer. The fried clams were crunchy and had tasty bellies, though a few were slightly overdone and some were slightly too greasy, but overall they were a surprising find.

Especially considering that the Droters are operating in a vacuum. Says Cass Droter, "I had a lot of requests; I guess that's the way I started. Learned just by trial and error."

Which may explain why they're served with a zesty, horseradishy cocktail sauce.