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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Fried Clams, Fried Lobster Claws, Chocolate Frappe