Like all great things, the fried clam has a much debated creation story. The earliest known mention dates back to an 1865 menu at Boston Parker House. That’s according to a book about the history of Howard Johnson’s, which famously brought fried clams to the masses. (Were they actually battered? Hard to tell…)
But I, like many lovers of that deep fried mollusk, choose to believe in a different origin. One where the creator is a man named Chubby and the place is a town called Essex.
So it goes: Back in the summer of 1914, business was slow for Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman and his wife Bessie. Their store was, and still is, right on the causeway in Essex, Massachusetts. The two-lane road, which crosses a salt marsh, sits mere inches above the water and floods regularly during full moon tides.
Their concession stand, known as Woodman’s, offered simple grocery sundries to locals on weekends – mostly shipbuilders and fishermen – including clams that Chubby himself dug up, and potato chips, the most popular item on the menu.
One day, a customer, a local fisherman, jokes that Chubby should toss a clam shell in the fryer. Maybe that would help business. HA! They laugh. This is a funny joke in 1914.
“That’s ridiculous!” said a customer.
“Clams have shells,” another said. Yes. Yes they do!
And the fisherman replied, “I wasn’t serious, it was just a little joke. I know you can’t fry clams like chips.”
But Chubby and Bessie thought about it. What if they could fry clams like potato chips? Hmmmm. Bessie’s says, “Let’s do it.” They shuck some clams and huck them right in the fryer.
Now we don’t have exact details, but we can imagine the clams sizzling there – just as they do today. The couple experimented with a few different batters and invited some locals to try. The Woodmans quickly realized they were on to something.
The clams tasted good. In fact, they tasted very good. They were fatty and gooey – and perhaps even better than a potato chip. Now this is July 3rd, and Chubby decides to sell them the next day on the Fourth of July. The taste of summer was officially born, and people still flock to Woodman’s to eat those clams.
As someone who grew up in Essex, I’m obligated to tell you there are a few other legitimate places for fried clams: “My favorite is Essex’s Village Restaurant,” Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote in Saveur magazine. Other locals I know swear by Essex Seafood. But my favorite is J.T Farnham’s, where the clams are delicious and the view of the salt marsh is unbeatable.
Is this the true story of the Fried Clam? Not sure. Will we ever really know? Unlikely. Though I must confess, there is great comfort for this writer in believing that the Fried Clam and America share a birthday. All seems right with that.
Happy Fourth of July!
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What will you be chowing down on to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. of A.? Let us know in the comments below!
Leading image courtesy Jon Crispin.