In his latest guest post, Bob Waite had me hooked with his first mention of fried clams, one of my favorite culinary indulgences.
And by the time I had finished reading his piece, I was salivating for a return trip to Cape Ann, a seafood haven and resort area that includes Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Bob grew up in Ipswich on Cape Ann, and writes here about his hometown and nearby Essex — one of which invented the fried clam (though both claim it). But wherever it was born, the Cape Ann area indisputably remains king of the clam. And that’s good enough for me.
By Robert Waite
Ipswich, MA – While many Americans back in the day were getting their kicks on Route 66, I was getting my thrills from the sea on Route 133. That’s Massachusetts Route 133 — specifically the section running from Ipswich to Essex, Massachusetts, known as the “Clam Highway.”
This nine-mile stretch of road links two historic colonial towns with a shared passion for harvesting and serving up seafood, in particular the fried clam.
My connection with this highway runs long and deep.
When I was growing up in Ipswich it ran directly past my home. For one brief period as a kid, I used to make terrifying 6 a.m. runs along the twisting roadway from Ipswich to Gloucester to retrieve huge blocks of ice for Grant’s Seafood, one of the town’s many seafood restaurants.
I was about 14. Mr. Grant was about 55 – and he drove his overloaded truck at about 80 mph. At 6 a.m., he explained, the Essex police would be eating donuts at the Village restaurant, so no need to worry.
Later I was the food critic for six area newspapers. Writing under the pseudonym Colleen Smacznego (Smacznego means “enjoy your meal” in Polish), I visited and reviewed restaurants from the Clam Box in Ipswich to J.T. Farnham’s in Essex – and all those in between.
Ipswich and Essex, located on the “shoulder” of Cape Ann, north of Boston, was once one town. Essex broke off from Ipswich in 1819. But, topographically, both remain linked by extensive salt marshes and access to the all-important clam flats – and, of course, Route 133.
The clam in question is soft-shelled and is most often eaten either steamed (“steamers”) or fried with its “whole-belly” intact. While called “Ipswich” clams, similar bi-valve molluscs are also sourced from Maine and Maryland. The largest distributor is Ipswich Shellfish, whose yellow-and-blue trucks can be seen all along the East Coast.
A local rival company, Soffron Brothers, specialized in “clam strips” – created by harvesting a “belly-less” section from the far larger, hard-shelled sea clam. For more than 30 years, Soffron had an exclusive contract to supply scores of Howard Johnson restaurants with clam strips.
The origin of the fried clam is a matter of dispute. According to Essex folks, it was concocted by Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman, who, on July 3, 1916, dredged some whole-bellied clams in corn meal, fried them up in lard and created a culinary item that no less an authority than Howard Johnson would later proclaim to be “sweet as a nut.”
Woodman’s claims this is the origin story of the “New England Fried Clam.”
Not unexpectedly, Ipswich people take exception.
According to “Stories from the River’s Mouth” by Sam Sherman, “True Ipswich clams were fried by Honey Russell and served at Russell’s Lunch.” While Sherman cites no exact date, the implication is that this, too, happened in 1916 — and that by using “corn flour, not corn meal,” Russell had invented the “true Ipswich clam.”
As an Ipswich native, I suppose I should care about this, but to me it’s just a tempest in a deep fryer.
My favorite place to get fried clams is in Ipswich – the Clam Box. It is north of the town center and can’t be missed, as it looks exactly like the boxes take-out clams have traditionally been served in.
Founded in 1935, the current structure was erected in 1938 and has become a regional landmark. Their mantra is “We don’t claim to have invented the fried clam, but we perfected it.”
Founded by one of the many Greek-American families involved in the local seafood industry, they’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling that promise. My preference is to order a full plate with a side dish of coleslaw and some onion rings; but a clam roll is an excellent option for those looking for a bit less.
Another good place for fried clams in Ipswich is the Choate Bridge Pub, located near America’s oldest stone arch bridge, which spans the Ipswich River.
Here you are more likely to be among locals – and have access to local and national brews. And the Ipswich Clambake Company on High Street gets good reviews.
In Essex, Woodman’s is certainly a must – and it offers the kind of fun “in the rough” family dining experience that many associate with clam and lobster “shacks” of old.
However, if you are looking for something a bit more refined, the Village Restaurant up the street is a good choice – it is the place I take my three sisters when we want seafood.
But in reality there are many good choices between the two towns. For example, Farnham’s in Essex, while only open between March and December, offers one of the most spectacular marshland views you’ll find anywhere on the East Coast.
Now I know what you might be thinking at this point – do I really want to go all that way just for a lunch or dinner?
My answer is that you might come for the clams – but you’ll want to stay for the two towns’ history, their scenic beauty, and Crane, one of the best white-sand beaches anywhere.
Stay tuned for Part II: Have a Devil of a Time in Ipswich.
IF YOU GO
If flying, Ipswich and Essex are most easily accessed from airports in Boston or Manchester, New Hampshire. While there is MBTA train service to Ipswich from Boston, your best bet is to rent a vehicle.
For accommodation, there are several good places. We enjoyed Kaede Bed and Breakfast atop Town Hill near downtown Ipswich on our last visit. Located in a large 1845 Federalist-period structure, the hosts offer New England hospitality with a Japanese accent. The Ipswich Inn Bed & Breakfast also gets good reviews. The Inn at Castle Hill is pricier, but puts you closer to the sea and beach.
If you decide to stay in Essex and would like a true colonial experience, the 1695 Cedar Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast might be just the ticket (don’t worry – they have all the modern amenities).
But with any restaurant or inn, given the waxing and waning COVID-19 restrictions, it is best to check ahead.
Tell them Colleen Smacznego sent you.
Robert Waite, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada, grew up in Ipswich, MA, and keeps his U.S. voting residence there. At the age of 12 he dressed in Puritan costume for the town’s annual 17th Century Day, and later was assigned to drive Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway to and from locations for the film “The Thomas Crown Affair.” He subsequently wrote a column for North Shore Weeklies, a chain of weekly newspapers based in Ipswich, and still writes a weekly column for the local Ipswich paper.
You might also enjoy this recent post by Robert Waite, on travel restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border.
Editor’s Note: Due to a technical glitch in the system, Reader Comments are not being displayed as usual, so I’m running them here. Thanks to everyone for writing, and I promise your comments will be posted. — Clark Norton
Bob, great read and spot on with the history of that culinary spectacle, The Ipswich Fried Clam. Growing up in Ipswich as well, many of us got to know the clam diggers personally and that gave all of us a direct connection to what we enjoyed consuming! The Clam Box, Choate Bridge Pub and the Ipswich Clambake Company always provides atmosphere, fresh fried clams, savory coleslaw and plenty of salt, ketchup and tartar sauce. Yes, your article was certainly stimulating….now I am leaving for a trip to The Clam Box and a full plate! Can’t wait for your next review. How about Prime Rib? — Lawrence Jordan LHJUSMC@GMAIL.COM
Thank you. Brought back many memories. I actually HAD a digger’s license…Lived on Meetinghouse Green and am looking forward to the next installment. I could toss a ball from where i lived right over to the Devil;s footprint. — Barbara Stratton-Appleton email@example.com
Here’s more than you thought you’d ever want to know about clams: https://historicipswich.org/2017/05/11/clam-stories/ — Gordon R. Harrisgordonharris2@gmail.com
Clam box built by mr Greenleaf. Don greenleaf, Son,lives in Ipswich. Nr Greenleaf also invented the hot dog bun holder but did not patent it. — Stan trocki Loresta@verizon.net
This was so enjoyable to read with my morning coffee. I also loved Essex Seafood but as you may know unfortunately burnt down this year. Rumor has it they will rebuild which I hope is true. I am so looking forward to your next article! I was born and raised in Danvers and Ipswich was my family’s go to place to eat out and now I am currently a resident of Ipswich for the last 22 years. Thank you for helping show case 133 and these amazing towns. –Michelle McGinness Ham468@aol.com
Eating at Woodmans was a special treat.
Seafood like nowhere else. My daughter called the Clam Box the place with the broken roof. — Arnold Newman firstname.lastname@example.org
The best clams in Ipswich are from the Choate Bridge Pub. Woodman’s, Clam Box use clams from Maryland
Choate Bridge Pub uses only Ipswich Clams. If they cannot get them (rain closure) they don’t serve them.
Meanwhile, next time you are in town stop by, spend the night, have the best breakfast in town on us. Always nice to have a writer visit. — Ray Morley ipswichinn.com
Grew up in Hamilton and lived in Ipswich for 30 years. I don’t want to say a preference because all of them are so good. I really miss those claims since I now live in Nevada and clams are nowhere to be found. PS. Farnham’s is top of my list for best, but I’m not saying. — Beverly Dalton
Fried Clams are my favorite food in the world…and the Clam Box brings back wonderful memories of the Clam roll. Have lived in Pittsburgh, PA for over 47 years now and manage to get back to Massachusetts and Maine every year or 2. Clam Box and Woodman’s are the “must stop” places to eat. I make it a point to eat clams or lobster every day for our 2 week visits. I miss it terribly! — Donna Pray Kaufman