While I was born and raised in California and have lived here for much of my life, I went to college in New England, my wife is from the North Shore (north of Boston), and I have spent a fair amount of time in New England. For me, no trip to New England is complete without a visit to Woodman’s of Essex for fried clams. There is, I was quite sure, no amount of snow that could prevent a box of fried clams from warming the heart (and, lining it).
Legend has it that Woodman’s invented the fried clam on July 3, 1916. It is, to be sure, a legend that is sponsored by Woodman’s of Essex. As the story goes, it was on that date that Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman was manning his small concession stand on Main Street in Essex – which featured homemade potato chips and fresh Ipswich clams that were dug by Chubby himself in the abutting estuary – when a local fisherman named Tarrpointed at a box of those clams and suggested in gest that Chubby fry up some of those clams like he did the chips. After several experimental runs by Chubby and his wife, Bessie, they settled on a particular batter recipe and the fried clam was supposedly born. The new “taste sensation” was formally debuted at the following day’s Essex July 4 Parade.
It’s a great story that is only mildly dampened by the fact that fried clams are found on an 1865 menu from the Parker House restaurant in Boston. Compelling as that primary source document might be, of course, we don’t know whether the Parker House’s clams were fried with or without batter. It is, for example, worth noting that the same menu includes an oyster dish that is listed as “Fried in Batter” whereas the Clams are simply listed as “Fried.” Many, such as Boston Chef Jasper White, profess faith in the Woodman’s legend.
And does it really matter? Would the Woodman’s clams taste better or worse if the legend is true? Fried Ipswich clams are fried Ipswich clams. Woodman’s batter is Woodman’s batter. The oil is the same temperature one way or the other. Either way, New England fried clams are deep fried soft-shelled clams, dipped in evaporated milk, coated with a combination of regular, corn, and/or pastry flour,fried in canola oil, soybean oil, or lard. Fried clams are, it is said, to New England what barbeque is to the South. And there are as many debates about the details of clam frying as there are about the details of barbeque. Bellies and necks or necks alone? How big should those bellies be?
At Woodman’s they go with the bellies and necks approach. Because the bellies are my favorite part I might quibble and wish for the larger bellies…but it is, frankly, hard to believe that fried clams could ever be any better than Woodman’s. They are perfectly fried. The batter could not possibly be better. One dip in tartar sauce is all that is required. For that matter, when it comes right down to it no dip is necessary.
The fried clams are not the only dish on offer at Woodmans. Their lobsters are legendary (our cousins insist that is what Woodman’s is known for). Their steamed clams (aka “steamers” or, in New England-ese, “steamahs”) are superb. They are Nancy’s go-to dish at Woodman’s. But for my money, its all about the fried clams. You will have none better…anywhere.
…except, perhaps, Woodman’s new outlet in Litchfield, New Hampshire. The food is, essentially, the same (it is all prepped in Essex, trucked to Litchfield and dipped and fried there). As many trips to Essex as we’ve made – and despite the fact that the Litchfield location (at a miniature golf palace) lacks the charms of the Essex estuary – it was nice to be able to enjoy the Woodman’s clams without the Essex drive. Whether at Essex or Litchfield, try Woodman’s.
Woodman’s of Essex 121 Main Street Essex, Massachusetts 978-768-6057 — Michael A. Gardiner