On July 3, 1916, Lawrence ‘Chubby’ Woodman invented the fried clam – or at least as we know the revered mollusk today.
It happened on 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.
That was Chubby’s 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.
The Woodmans preferred method was to dip the clams in milk and then in a mixture of finely ground cornmeal and flour before deep frying.
In 1983, a New York Times reporter described Woodman’s 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. Those dates included their two oldest sons’ birthdays and this: “We fried the first fried clam—in the town of Essex, July 3, 1916.”
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 an appetite for clams as voracious as a summer tourist.
Strips or Bellies?
Clam shacks spread throughout New England. Not all used Ipswich clams. Cape Codders, for example, use 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, which he marketed as 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 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.