I ate my first fried clam when I was 12 years old. I was a picky eater up to that point, especially in regards to seafood. Despite the fact that my mother was an excellent cook and a shellfish fanatic, and despite the fact that I grew up along Massachusetts' northern coast, home to the Great Marsh and some of the best clam flats on planet earth, broiled haddock with a spritz of lemon (and some bagged rice pilaf on the side) was about as adventurous as I got as a pre-teen.
I lost my shellfish virginity in the summer of 1997 (it would be another decade before I lost my real virginity, so shellfish would have to do), after an ill-fated game with my Little League all-star team. I got up to bat in the top of the final inning, my team down a run. I swung at the first pitch I saw and launched it deep to right field. There was little doubt in my mind: I'd just hit a go-ahead home run, and I was a hero. I flipped my bat like a young José Bautista, glared mockingly into the pitcher's 12-year-old eyes, and began my slow, cocksure trot around the bases.
The thing is: the ball never left the park. In reality, the ball struck the chain link fence in right and fell to the warning track below. In the end, we lost. Tom Hanks' advice in A League of Their Own notwithstanding, I believe I cried. A lot.
During the car ride home down Route 1 through Ipswich, my parents decided, in spite of my teary protestations, to stop for lunch at the Clam Box. (The Clam Box is an institution. Founded in 1935 by a cat called Dick Greenleaf, it's been owned and operated by Chickie Aggelakias—who is, in a word, delightful—for the past 30 years. Her son Dimitri, who on my visit was as accommodating as any restaurateur I've ever come across, helps her with the business. They are gems and you should visit them.)
Despondent because of my gaffe and envious because of the joy my mother, father, and older brother seemed to be deriving from inhaling these deep-fried filter feeders, I decided, "Screw it, I'm eating one of these things." Losing that ball game is the best thing that ever happened to me; I'd found my new favorite thing.
Fried clams and the rustic roadside shacks that sling them are ubiquitous on coastal New England. Nashville has hot fried chicken, Austin has brisket, Los Angeles has taco trucks, and New England's got its fried clams. And while you can find solid to very solid versions from mid-coastal Maine to Cape Cod, and all the way down to the southernmost bits of coastal Rhode Island and Connecticut, your best bet for fried clams is to travel half an hour north of Boston up US Route 1 to Essex and Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Essex and Ipswich are both situated on the Great Marsh, New England's longest stretch of uninterrupted salt marsh. (Its 20,000 acres extend from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the border with southern New Hampshire.) The marsh and its barrier beaches, tidal rivers, estuaries, and upland islands are rich with clam flats. Each town on the marsh yields an excellent soft-shell clam (the kind used for frying), but the clams coming from the flats of Essex and Ipswich—especially Ipswich, where the flats are made up of a mix of mud and sand—are world-famous.
Accounting for the quality is difficult business (there's a lot of biology and ecology that factor into the equation), but Michael Gagne, the director of business development at the Ipswich Shellfish Company, told me to think about clams like people think about wine.
"Clams are like varietal grapes," explained Gagne. "Some grapes grow in rocky terrain, some grow in fertile soil, others grow by the sea. Well, it's the same for the life of a clam…The taste and quality of a clam really depends on where it spends its life."
Whatever it is about the mix of mud and sand in the flats of Essex and Ipswich, people are (and seemingly always have been) into it. The area's three most popular clam shacks—Woodman's, the Clam Box, and J.T. Farnham's—are a testament to the flats of the Great Marsh, and have been in very busy business since their respective openings in 1914, 1935, and 1945.
Soft-shell clams have been living in the murk of the Great Marsh since long before human beings existed, but the fried version of the things are a relatively new idea.
Origin stories are tricky, but local lore dictates the fried clam was invented in 1916 by Essex restaurateur Chubby Woodman. Woodman's small restaurant on Route 133 in Essex featured an apparently spectacular version of the beloved potato chip, so he wasn't short on vats of frying oil. Legend has it that one day after digging for clams in the Great Marsh, instead of steaming his haul, Woodman decided to fry them. The rest is history.
While the Woodman tale is pleasant and heartwarming—"Local Man in Bucolic Early 20th-Century Seaside Massachusetts Town Invents World's Tastiest Foodstuff"—it's unfortunately not all as neat and tidy as that. An 1865 menu from the famed Omni Parker House hotel in Boston lists fried clams (for 40 cents) on its supper menu, and there are several references—some dating as far back as 1840—to fried clams in American cookbooks and gentleman magazines.
And then there's Howard Johnson's claim to the fried clam throne. Shortly after Woodman's successful experiment, an Ipswich man called Thomas Soffron of Soffron Brothers Clam Co. sold his recipe for fried clam strips (which are made with the foot of a sea clam, and which are very much meh) to the hotel/restaurant giant. HoJo's would go on to popularize the dish nationwide (and claim it had invented fried clams in the process).
Of course it doesn't really matter who invented the fried clam or where or when she or he invented it. We're all just very lucky they exist at all. The formula varies from shack to shack—some spots dip the clams in buttermilk first, while others use evaporated milk, but mostly everyone dredges them in corn flour, pastry flour, or some combination of the two—but a good fried clam should be three things: simultaneously sweet and briny with a light batter that clings to, but does not suffocate, the exterior of the mollusk. To all the shacks serving fried clams with heavy, gluey batters: STOP! Stop now! You're blowing it!
If you live anywhere near the Great Marsh, you know about J.T. Farnham's, Woodman's, and the Clam Box. If you're merely passing through, you'd be remiss not to visit any of the three shacks. Although let's be honest: You should just complete the trifecta. Your heart won't feel great on a functional level after all that fried food, but it will feel nourished on a philosophical level. You are a gourmand, and you deserve to eat three delicious boxes of fried clams. Treat yourself.