A New England Symbol: Frying the Clam
Cookbooks from the 1840s show that Americans were frying clams decades before Bessie and Chubby Woodman established their method. The Woodmans were likely the first to fry and sell clams in Essex, and they are one of the longest consecutively run seafood restaurants in America. One thing is certain: an afternoon at the beach simply is not complete without a steaming basket piled high with fried clams.
Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book by Catherine E. Beecher. Fifth Edition, 1871. Page 66:
“To Cook Clams: Thin-edged clams are the best ones. Roast them in a pan over a hot fire, or in a hot oven, placing them so as to save the juice. When they open, empty the juice into a sauce-pan, and add the clams with butter, pepper, and very little salt. To boil them, put them in a pot with a very little water, and so as to save their juices. Proceed as above, and lay buttered toast in the dish when you take them up. Clams are good put into a batter and fried.”
“There is just a wonderful thing that happens when you take a fresh, briny, salty clam with its belly on, and you put a nice batter around it that will turn crisp, and you dunk it in hot boiling lard. There is just magic that happens there!
The first recipe for battered fried clams occurs in Catherine Beecher’s cookbook, published in 1841. So that is the first documentation in American cookbooks for the fried clam, though we can look back to English cookbooks and find battered cockles in England in 1685. So, the tradition of doing this goes way back.
And I know that there is a story that Lawrence ‘Chubby’ Woodman, invented the fried clam in 1916. It’s been repeated very, very often. I don’t think Chubby ever made that claim. He did write into his Bible that he and Bessie made the first fried clam in Essex, and I think that’s exactly what he did. I like to view that more as a business plan than the documentation of this invention. Because if you look at Lawrence Woodman, he was a trolley car operator working between Essex and Gloucester, taking leisure time people out to the beach for the first time. And they needed food to sustain themselves during their all-day travels. And I think he just saw an opportunity. So there’s these myths buried and tied in with other myths, but this should not distract from what Lawrence Woodman did. I know of no other seafood restaurant in America that has had the longevity of Woodman’s. That’s a monumental feat, to stay in business after all these years!” - Joseph Carlin
Local clam shacks like Woodmans of Essex, and the Clam Box in Ipswich have lines out the door on summer days and help to keep clam diggers like the Grundstroms in business.
Jack: Well, one summer we were digging clams for probably a buck and a half a pound—or something like that. And we came into landing, and he’s driving the boat and I looked up, and Woodman’s got his truck up there, got a big sign on it—$2.50 a pound. The brakes went on!
John: Guy says, “God, you left rubber in the river! I’ve never seen anybody stop so fast in my life.”
Jack: And we had had a great day for digging. So it was a humongous day’s pay at the $2.50 a pound. So, we said, “Do you want us to continue to dig for you at this price?” He said, “Yeah.” So we dug for him all summer. Everybody else went down to see if they could get in on it. Because we were the first ones, and he was very loyal to us, he said, “Nope, they were the guys that came to me first.” So we dig for him all summer. What a summer we had! I mean, phew! We went to Disney twice that year.”