Summer Journey: Searching the North Shore for the Finest Fried Clams

Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Each summer when I was a boy the family would take the one-hour drive to Jimmies, a clam and hot dog stand at Savin Rock in West Haven, Conn. It was on the ocean near a boardwalk.

We kids got hot dogs. The adults got clams, but sometimes my sister Ruth Anne and I could wheedle a taste of them. Even then, I knew they were special.

Then as a young adult driving up and down the coast of New England, I discovered Howard Johnson’s clam rolls. I loved them, but didn’t know then that clam strips are just the junior cousins of real whole-belly clams, which I discovered much later.

So when my friend Robert Meyers, co-owner of Three Tomatoes Trattoria in downtown Lebanon, told me he’d been doing some casual research about the best fried clams in New England, I offered to help him. Robert had been looking at places near Boston and settled on the North Shore, widely regarded as the birthplace of fried clams. We agreed to make a field trip to the Ipswich, Mass., area to test the best clams we could get.

We left Lebanon at 9:30 in the morning, accompanied by my partner, Cindy Heath. It was a clear, hot, slightly muggy morning. Ipswich clams are known the world over, but our first stop was a little north of Ipswich, in Newburyport. Unlike our other stops that day, Park Lunch is an indoor restaurant with no outdoor tables. We arrived just before noon, and the place was empty. But within 10 minutes, every table was full of patrons, including several regulars.

Knowing that we were going to be sampling fried clams from three or four places, Cindy and I decided to start by sharing a small order of clams, though it was far from small by my standards. And I got some coleslaw to provide our vegetables — an attempt to eat a balanced meal. Our order was on the table in under 5 minutes, hot and delicious. Wow. So this is what fried clams are supposed to be like, I thought. It helps to have clams that were in the Atlantic the day before.

I chatted with a couple at a nearby corner table from Sarasota, Fla., Tom and Tracy Frascone. They had grown up in Newburyport and Tom’s grandfather had been the lighthouse keeper on Plum Island, years ago. Tom mentioned that the lighthouse is open to the public every Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. They moved south to avoid the winters, but claim that Ipswich fried clams are far better than any available in Florida.

Whenever Tom and Tracy get back to the area they eat fried clams, both at Park Lunch and at the Clam Box in Ipswich. But, as Tracy explained, she likes the Park Lunch because the gossip is better. She said some of the middle-aged waitresses have been working at Park Lunch since high school, and know everyone in town.

We proceeded to the Clam Box in Ipswich, a structure built to look like its namesake. At 1 p.m. there was a line out the door, but it moved quickly. The Clam Box has been owned and operated by Marina “Chickee” Aggelakis for the past 29 years. I sat down with Chickee and her son, Dimitri, to discuss the fried clam business.

Chickee is 65 and works 14 hour days, six days a week, as does her son. She has strong views about how her business should be run, starting with her own oversight, particularly of the three dozen or so high school and college-aged employees.

For example, she believes that the quality of her clams depends on good, clean oil in the fryolators. To accomplish that, she dumps her oil twice a day: they stop cooking for 20 minutes each day at 2:30 in the afternoon to empty out the fat, and then do it again at closing time. She sells the oil to a recycler.

According to Chickee, there are no secrets about how they make their clams: they dip the clams (they buy 20 gallons of shucked local clams each day) in evaporated milk and then roll them in a 3 to 1 mixture of corn flour and pastry flour. The pastry flour helps to hold the fine corn flour (not corn meal) to the clams. The fry cook will shake off any excess flour, then drop them in the first fryolator. They cook briefly in a 50-50 mix of boiling beef and vegetable fat at 350 degrees, which washes off any excess flour, and brings them up to temperature. Then they go into a second fryolator until “crispy and golden, but not too well done.”

So we ate another lunch at the Clam Box, and loved it. The clams were smaller than at Park Lunch, all in the small to medium size, which Chickee likes best. Although there is a dining room, we ate under a tall oak tree on a picnic table. A sign warned about tipping over the tables, but even with three of us on one side, and two portions each in our tummies, the table didn’t even wiggle. Maybe there are customers who eat the big portions instead of the small, and come every week.

Then it was time for some sun and sea at Crane Beach, a fabulous stretch of white sand run by a private nonprofit on the former estate of R.T. Crane, whose company produced, among many other things, fine bathroom fixtures, from the 1920s to the 1980s. It’s a lovely family beach with clean facilities, lots of lifeguards and gently sloping sand with plenty of shallow water for the little ones. Admission is $20 per carload.

The water was a little chilly, but the sun was hot and we had sunscreen so we all stretched out after a swim to bake, and to digest our clams. This beach experience was exactly what a one-day vacation should include. None of us was in a hurry, but finally duty called: We needed to taste more clams before driving back to the Upper Valley.

Our final stop was at Woodman’s of Essex, which lays claim to the origin story of the New England clam shack. On July 3, 1916, Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman and his wife, Bessie, experimented with flour coatings and frying oils and served the hot, crispy bivalves at the next day’s Independence Day festivities.

I sat down with Stevie Woodman and his wife, Maureen, to learn about fried clams and the family business. They are both storytellers and regaled me with many stories of the five generations of Woodmans who have been involved in the business. Currently there are 38 Woodmans from three generations on the payroll. Stevie is the grandson of the founder and runs the business with his brother, Doug.

Chubby Woodman, a self-educated entrepreneur full of ideas, panache and generosity, and Bessie started selling clams after a customer for their fried potato chips suggested frying clams, too. The first effort was a bust. Bessie decided they needed a coating, and after dipping clams in evaporated milk, she rolled them in corn flour, then dropped them in boiling lard. They’ve been following the same recipe for over 100 years. They don’t use pastry flour in their coating, hence their clams are gluten-free — though not low calorie, by any measure.

Stevie Woodman told me that Chubby even taught Howard Johnson, of the orange-roofed restaurant chain of the 1940’s and 1950’s, how to make fried clams. Howard ultimately decided to use clam strips instead of whole belly clams, and made quite a business of it.

Maureen gave me a copy of a book of recipes and stories of Woodman’s, Woodman’s of Essex: a Yankee Tradition Since 1914. Unlike the usual self-promoting books about restaurants, this one is full of funny stories and good recipes.

Each of the three clam places claimed theirs were the best. When I told our waitress at Park Lunch what we were doing, she said, “Don’t waste your time. You’ve already eaten the best.” And Chickee at the Clam Box said, “Sure Woodman’s invented the fried clam. We perfected it.” And Stevie Woodman noted that “Imitation is the highest form of flattery. People have loved our clams for over 100 years, and nobody has beaten us yet.”

So how would I rate the various clams? There was no clear winner. They were all fabulous. And although I wouldn’t recommend tasting them all in one day as we did, you could plan a Clam Weekend — head to the Ipswich area and eat them in moderation.

Me? I’m just eating garden salads for a while. I’d hate to tip over a picnic table.

Henry Homeyer is the author of five books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.