It was a hot, steamy day in Essex, Mass. Chubby Woodman and his wife Bessie had opened a small concession stand on Main Street two years earlier. On weekends they sold small grocery items, homemade potato chips and clams that Chubby dug from the tidal flats of the Essex River.
That summer day a fisherman named Tarr came by for Chubby’s potato chips. Chubby complained business was slow. Tarr pointed to a bucket of clams and joked that Chubby should try to fry up some clams.
Chubby had his eureka moment.
The Fried Clam
He and Bessie shucked the clams, threw lard in the pot and experimented with different batters. When they came up with a version they liked, they asked some locals to taste them.
In 1983, Woodman’s was described by a New York Times reporter as “a rambling barn of a place with wooden picnic tables, no waiters, lots of flies, and all the sophisticated ambiance of a Kiwanis Club cookout in Jersey City.”
Chubby and Bessie wrote important family dates on the back of their wedding certificate: their two oldest sons’ birthdays and this: "We fried the first fried clam—in the town of Essex, July 3, 1916."
The Woodmans’ insight was to dip the clams in milk and then in a mixture of finely ground cornmeal and flour before deep frying.
Soft-shelled Ipswich clams dug out of muddy flats became the sine qua non of fried clams. Purveyors of the battered bivalve sprang up along the Mollusk Trail –- Route 133 from Rowley through Ipswich to Essex. Hordes come for fried clams In Essex at Woodman's, run by descendants of Chubby Woodman, J. T. Farnham's and Essex Seafood, and in Ipswich, the Clam Box.
What makes the Ipswich clam so special? Cambridge chef Jasper White told the New York Times the soft-shell clams taste richer.
Sadly, Ipswich clams aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, thanks in part to development, pollution and the invasive green crab, which has a voracious appetite for clams.
Strips or Bellies?
Clam shacks spread throughout New England. Not all used Ipswich clams. On Cape Cod, for example, fried clams are made from hard shell clams that come from the sandy ocean floor (sometimes causing a grit issue).
Howard Johnson’s brought the fried clam to the masses beyond New England with clam strips, an innovation from another Ipswich clam entrepreneur.
Thomas Soffron, a Greek immigrant and partner in the Soffron Brothers Clam Co., was said to be a picky eater who didn’t like clam bellies. He used only the foot of hard-shell clams, calling them Tender-sweet Fried Clams. Soffron entered into an exclusive deal to provide clam strips for Howard Johnson’s while the restaurant empire was expanding. The Soffron brothers business grew to seven processing plants from Nova Scotia to Maryland, to meet Howard Johnson’s demand.
The ascent of the clam strip has created an ongoing controversy in New England: Bellies or strips? Clam-belly advocates call the strips ‘fried rubber bands’ or ‘nothing but a bar snack.’ Strip advocates call the bellies ‘disgusting.’
Here’s another controversy: Did Chubby Woodman really invent the fried clam? They were listed on an 1865 menu from the Parker House hotel restaurant in Boston.
Presumably, clams then just weren’t the same as the modern fried clam-- which, after all, is to New England as barbecue is to the South.