Woodman’s of Essex – Essex, Massachusetts

Woodman’s of Essex, inventor of the fried clam

If you can imagine what New Mexico would be like without green chile or the South without barbecue, you can understand what New England would be without fried clams.  Like our beloved green chile, fried clams are an iconic food, so much so that they are almost synonymous with states like Maine and Massachusetts in which they are harvested and sold.  It’s almost a wonder the license plate mottos in at least one of those two states isn’t “The Fried Clam State.”

As with our cherished chile, fried clams have a distinctive, unforgettable flavor that not everybody “gets.”  Similar to chile, those who love fried clams are usually ensnared at first bite by this distinctly delicious delicacy.  Like green chile, they are positively addictive and have a flavor that once enjoyed imprints itself indelibly upon your taste buds and your memories.

There is some dispute as to the progenitor of fried clams.  They were on the menu at Boston’s hallowed Parker House in 1865 though there is no indication if they were deep-fried or batter-dipped.  The Parker House is already credited with having invented Boston Cream Pie and Parker House Rolls, so posterity doesn’t seem to mind that someone else is ascribed with having “invented” fried clams.

Woodman's of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts
Woodman’s of Essex, a marshland oasis in Massachusetts

That would be Woodman’s of Essex, a Yankee tradition since 1914.  History relates that July 3, 1916 was a very slow business day for the little roadside stand in Essex, Massachusetts owned by Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman.  A local fisherman enjoying homemade potato chips at the stand noticed a bucket of clams nearby and jokingly suggested that they be fried up.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Chubby and his wife Bessie shucked some clams out of the shell, experimented with different batters and had some locals taste-test their new offering.  The unanimous verdict was “delicious.”  The following day, during the Fourth of July parade, Chubby and Bessie presented the “first” fried clams to the local citizenry.  What started off as a serendipitous suggestion changed the Yankee appetite.

About ten years thereafter, the owner of an eponymous restaurant chain named Howard Johnson visited Essex to learn how to fry clams directly from Chubby.  Howard Johnson’s and its familiar orange roof was a familiar sight along the highways and byways of America throughout much of the twentieth century.  “HoJo’s” conceptualized signature menu items such as 28 ice cream flavors, cultivating an image that it was a very special, homey place.  One of its most popular offerings was fried clams.  A centralized commissary and the processing and pre-portioning of foods gave Howard Johnson’s the advantage of consistency–an inland Howard Johnson’s served fried clams that tasted exactly the same as those served at Cape Cod.

A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries
A feast of fried clams, onion rings and French fries

In 1979, I moved back to New Mexico after two years in Massachusetts where I made frequent trips to Woodman’s of Essex and other shrines to sumptuous seafood.  Like chipmunk cheeks stuffed with nuts and acorns, mine were often filled with fried clams which I loved intensely.

Alas, my first visit to Howard Johnson’s on Eubank proved a very disappointing venture of unrequited love.  Instead of the plump, sweet and miraculously delicious whole bellied clams I had fallen in love with, HoJo’s served “clam strips,” what my favorite clam shacks in New England might have discarded entirely.  According to a New York Times article in 2005, the clam strips served at Howard Johnson’s were “made from the tongues of enormous sea clams whose bodies were used as the base for the restaurant’s famous clam chowder.”  It’s no wonder I didn’t like them.

Rather than subject myself to clam strips which might tarnish my memories, I committed to eating only the real thing.  Fried clams, however, are not easy to find in the West.  In fact, only in Las Vegas, Nevada have I been able to find fried clams that approximated those from New England.  Still, it’s difficult to get excited about fried clams in a faux nautical ambience when it’s over the century mark outside.

Fried lobster claws at Woodman's of Essex
Fried lobster claws at Woodman’s of Essex

Not much has changed at Woodman’s of Essex since my last visit in 1979 although the advent of the communication age has made it a world renown destination which Zagat calls “a cult classic–right up there with baseball and apple pie.”  The list of publications which have honored the restaurant would fill a book.  We were more concerned with filling our bellies and the Holy Grail for fried clams excels at this.

The “Chubby’s Original” fried clams are blondish whole-bellied beauties served with onion rings and French fries.  The clams are big, shapeless entanglements which you might have to separate.  The texture of the crust is just light enough to provide a discernible crunch that leads to a velvety interior where the real flavor of fried clams lies.  There is nothing like fried clams!  Nothing!  Woodman’s are among the very best.

The Woodman’s menu features far more than fried clams–like the hard-to-find fried lobster tails.  The light batter allows the flavor of lobster to shine.  As with conventional boiled lobster, the fried lobster tails are served with warm butter, perfect for dipping the sweet, meaty king of seafood.  Tartar sauce is served on the side, but anything other than butter is considered a desecration.

The derivation of the term “happy as a clam” might be attributed to the fact that open clams give the appearance of smiling.   Woodman’s of Essex and its fabulous fried clams have been making diners as happy as a clam for nearly a century.

Woodman’s of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, Massachusetts
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET:  Fried Clams, Fried Lobster Claws, Chocolate Frappe

6 thoughts on “Woodman’s of Essex – Essex, Massachusetts

  1. A few weeks ago we finally hit Woodman’s on a clear blue day without getting lost in driving rain like our previous efforts. We bought a bucket of clams which were every bit as good as advertised (we have had bad elsewhere but just between us girls I thought $70 was very steep). We had eaten just as good in Lincoln NH at a place which has them only occasionally, and off the menue, at 1/4 of the price as well giant steamers even more occasionally. In the area again we would return again anyway. They are that good.

  2. Yo Broken Heart (BH): So Sorry…my palate embarrasses me!!! It can’t take ‘gooey’ stuff: bellies, let alone oyeestaahs! (Ok Ok…there are certain exceptions!! that time contraints limit further elaboration!!)
    Re New Mexicans visiting “Back East”!!! Yes, Good Point!!! Contrawise, I ‘Yankee- wise-mouth’ visiting tourists to ABQ while volunteering at Tourist Info Desks here, by challenging their haughty “I’m from Baaastan” claim. I.e. “No one’s from Baaastan!” which gets a startle and then an admission one is from Dorchester, Worcester, Pittsfield, etc. Thus, I badger them to do a day trip to Lowell which, alas, they didn’t teach us about its great heritage in my youth. So BH too?….. have you toured its textile mills and via its 6 miles of canals?
    Here’s my handout you might also give to your kin: Main history of New England mills begins in Lowell. Check here http://www.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm for various tours through the National Park Service, e.g. canals; actual running looms in humongous ‘rooms’; boarding homes. Visit the Boott Mill, the American Textile and the New England Quilt museums – http://www.athm.org/ http://www.nequiltmuseum.org/ Prior to going, enhance the experience by reading Call the Darkness Light [life of a mid-teen Mill Girl in the early 1800s; ABQ or RR libraries] by Nancy Zaroulis who puts you on streets/neighborhoods you can find today. Also wrote fictional history spanning 300 years: Massachusetts. Eats? In late July http://www.lowellfolkfestival.org Otherwise, Ricardo’s Trattoria http://tinyurl.com/qz7do8 Re Baastan curiosities: Dark Tide – the Boston Molasses Flood! Can read online at http://tinyurl.com/yfo4raz . The Union Oyster House (oldest restaurant in country) including JFK’s booth http://www.unionoysterhouse.com The Liberty Hotel for a unique setting for dining in the converted 1800s Charles St. Jail http://www.libertyhotel.com/
    Lowell? What? Who’s from there Y’all say!!! Ladd & Whitney-1st deaths of the Civil War were Lowellians and are buried in front of City Hall (under the obelisk). Whistler & Whistler’s Mom! Bette Davis – Starlet from the ‘30s and beyond. Remember Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In fairness, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bette_Davis . For Newbies who wonder about the hoopla of our “Cinqo de Mayo” track down the movie Juarez with Davis for an explanation http://tinyurl.com/7jrmgqb. Ed McMahon – tho born in Detroit, spent many years in Lowell…a LHS Grad,‘40… and often visited the city as a celebrity, e.g. see a dedicated bench (an inside joke) near Middlesex Community College on East Merrimack St. by the Concord River; “Loved” hotdogs at Elliot‘s. Jack Kerouac – One of THE Beatniks -’50s; e.g. On The Road; memorial park on Bridge St. before the bridge. Visit The Grotto http://tinyurl.com/3ul6rnx of his Dr. Sax on Pawtuckett Blvd. OMG… Actress Olympia Dukakis. Robert Tessier; Ray Goulding – Bob & Ray radio show ‘40s-’80s. Nancy Kelly (bro of “Bart Maverick“…LOL) many films but check out The Bad Seed (Netflix). Michael Chiklis – The Commish; The Shield; No Ordinary Family (last year) series. “The Fighter” (‘10) was about and filmed in Lowell. http://tinyurl.com/4s4mxb3 Well, and me ! (BLUSH) Oh, CVS pharmacy started there.
    Lastly, you “are killing me” if you haven’t gotten your ‘Baastaan area kin’ one of these for Christmas: http://tinyurl.com/7rweds7 …alas “in my time” I did get to enjoy one of the first aluminum snow shovels that we still, nevertheless, had to wax!!!
    Alas, as I lift a Coffee Frappe to Y’all ~ Na Zdrowie y Slainte! ~ Salud!

  3. Ohhhh nooooooooo….. BOTVOLR you are breaking my heart with your sans bellies preference! I thought you said you grew up in the Boston area! You are killing me!

    For New Mexicans that travel to New England and get a chance for fried clams, please follow Gil’s recommendation… fried clams with bellies! Get a clam plate, it will come with clams with bellies. They are to die for.

    Woodman’s is a great place to get them, but by no means is it the only place. There are a hundred good places for fried clams along the coast from Rhode Island to Maine, and if they ask if you want bellies, your answer should be YES!

    If you do get to Essex (MA) then you may want to drive a little further for an informal lobster by the sea experience in Rockport. My favorite lobster shack in Massachusetts is The Lobster Pool, Rt. 127, 329 Granite Street, Rockport. They don’t serve beer or wine but you can bring you own with no problems and no fees. They close for the winter so if in doubt then call to see if they are open (978) 546-7808. See web site http://www.lobsterpoolrestaurant.com/main/index.php

    Rockport is a nice seaside town to stroll through as well, and you can take a photo (or set up your easel) of “motiff #1” which is supposedly the most painted building in America. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motif_Number_1

    I tell my family in Boston to come to New Mexico because it is unlike anything they have seen. The opposite is true as well. New Mexicans should go to New England (during the good weather months).

  4. OMG! Thumbs Up and toes flexing re Woodman’s. While only 40 miles away from where I lived as a kid, that was a long trip in days of yore. So while I enjoyed great Fried Clams (or Lobstah Rolls) for a pittance in my hometown’s local restaurants, including HJ’s, or sharing a “box” while strolling the Boardwalk at Hampton Beach (NH) as a teen, t’wasn’t but two years ago I finally got to Woodmen’s for the first time while celebrating my Sis’ BD. While she and her two buddies chowed down on Whole Lobstahs, I was in pigs’ heaven (pardon the whatever) being enlightened to what The Goddess Fried Clam was all about. There really should be legalities to protect The Fried Clam just as Indian jewelry is protected so that Crimson Lobstah couldn’t pass off or lure us with their crinkled, tasteless fried batter as Fried Clams! Maybe its the altitude or watah back in MA that makes for great fish battahs?!

    Oh, BTW…While you might expect to be served on china with silver for 25 bucks for a fried lobstah tail, Woodman’s is Woodman’s. As soon as you’re chomping your seafare, it won’t matter your sitting at a picnic table eating on paperware after having gotten your order from the kitchen window….Chill….it’s classic, New England surfside dining…LOL.

    Lastly, lacking a nice wine or beeya, I would recommend a coffee frappe with seafood as chocolate tends to be a bit overpowering IMHO. Also, I prefer the clam strips, i.e. sans bellies….as bellies are OOOeeee!

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