Visit Cogswell's Grant in Essex, Massachusetts.Learn More
- School & Youth
- Get Involved
Clams have come a long way from their use in the colonial era as pig food and fishing bait. At prices ranging from $90 to $160 per bushel, these shellfish are now a luxury food enjoyed by tourists in clam shacks by the sea, and by inland city-dwellers alike. The clam’s is a story of consumers, but also of diggers, and a way of life born from the changing tides of industry. Today, the clam diggers of the North Shore balance time-honored practices and new challenges, while pulling our heritage from the sand.
Clams were not always the desired delectable they have become. Colonists of early America ate clams only in times of desperation. In fact, they preferred to allow their pigs to forage on the mud flats. Though American Indians had been eating clams for thousands of years, colonists were more interested in selling salted clams as bait for use on fishing vessels.
Joseph Carlin: “I’m a public health nutritionist by profession, but I have been a food historian even longer. I’ve always been interested in the history and evolution of not only food, but the recipes for food, and culinary practices. You know, a lot of people have called me the Clam Man only because I speak on the topic so often. I’m really a promoter of the clam, and I love to take the role of identifying with an underdog.”
Franklyn E. Goucher (from his memoirs): “When I was a young boy digging clams here in the Essex River, one of my greatest pleasures was listening to the older clammers swapping tales with one another. Once in a while, anywhere from three to a half dozen would happen to gather in the same area and start relating true and many humorous stories for an hour or two without a repeat. I couldn’t begin to remember them all but I do recall a few. Some happened before my time, some didn’t. Those that did, I will narrate pretty much as I heard them. Those that didn’t I will tell them as I remember.”
Jack E. Grundstrom: “Well, I am a third-generation clam digger in Rowley. My grandfather came up from Sweden, dug clams. My father dug clams. I dug clams. John, my son, is the fourth generation. His daughter and his sister’s son are both commercial clam diggers. They are both away at college now, but when they get home, the first place they’ll head to will be clam flats. Because we love it!”
John H. Grundstrom: “I started clamming at maybe six or seven, just a little bit, and then eight, nine, ten, a lot more. I think I was probably around twelve, and I got up one day and my father said, ‘I think it’s time you get your own boat.’ Actually at one point I had a retail store in Ipswich. I’d dig clams, run that, and then, about 1978 or so, I decided to take a little side trip to Key West one winter, and ended up going down there and opening a business. And then about twenty-two years ago I learned the art of fishing natural sea sponges. I would literally fish out of Key West in the winter, and then come back here and clam from April to about October.”
Dave Sargent: “I’ve been the city of Gloucester Shellfish Constable since 2005, and for five years before that I tried to promote the opening of shell fishing areas through the city’s wastewater management plan. And then for twenty-five years previous to that, I was a commercial shellfisherman. And prior to that, I was a recreational shellfisherman.”
Leonard and Kyle Woodman are the grandson and great grandson of Lawrence and Bessie Woodman, whose inspired fried clam recipe from 1914 is the basis for the beloved family-owned restaurant, Woodman’s of Essex.
During a summer in the 1870s or 1880s, if you had the means, your family might have escaped the heat of the city by hopping on a train bound for the Massachusetts coast. At these destinations visitors stayed in new resort hotels partaking of the fresh sea air and the local color.
“Our early ancestors here in New England were familiar with shellfish. They were the food of the poor, and they didn’t want to be identified with the poor. But during periods of deprivation here in Colonial New England, they were forced to go out and harvest clams. But over time people did acquire a taste for clams, and it came in a surprising way—and that was the development of leisure time, and the development of transportation. And also refrigeration and ice. All this comes as a confluence, and people wind up getting on trains to go to resort hotels all along the coast of New England. They take ferries and steamers out to various coastal locations and islands that had big resort hotels on them. And when they get there, the kids have to be occupied so they go down to the beach, and they start digging up clams. It’s hard to document this kind of stuff, but based upon what information we have, it is suggested that they carried these clams up to the chef, who said, ‘Yeah, I can do something with it. Instead of putting haddock in the chowder tonight we’ll put some clams in it.'” – Joseph Carlin
Tourists, especially children, enjoyed the novelty of digging for a clam or two while sitting on sandy beaches. Before long, the clam began making an appearance on the plates at these resorts – steamed, or fried, or thrown in fish chowder.
Consumer demand at the turn of the twentieth century resulted in flats all but stripped of clams. In 1909 Dr. David Belding wrote in his Report on the Mollusk Fisheries of Massachusetts:
“With no thought of seed time, but only of harvest, the fertile tidal flats are yearly divested of their fast-decreasing output by reckless and ruthless exploitation, and valuable territories when once exhausted are allowed to become barren. All hopes for the morrow are sacrificed to the clamorous demands of the present. The more the supply decreases, the more insistent becomes the demand; and the greater the demand, the more relentless grows the campaign of spoliation.”
From Franklyn Goucher’s memoirs: Some years ago, a Cadillac drove into my yard with New York number plates. Out popped a gent dressed fit to kill, even to the top hat.He purchased some clams, then looked into his wallet and said, “Gracious, can you change a hundred, it seems to be the smallest I have?” “Damn sure,” I said, “and ten more just like it.” It was a big lie but I couldn’t let that overly inflated city slicker think he was impressing an Essex hick like me.
Though early colonists ate clams only in the leanest of times, present-day Americans often hail the shellfish as an iconic food of our forefathers. In the common mythology of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, the clam appears on the table surrounded by turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries. In fact, the clam was incorporated into this myth by a group of men in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1767, who threw a “Founder’s Day” feast featuring clams. Despite this historical inaccuracy, the clam has become a nostalgic symbol in the modern imagination of the simple Puritan life, and the pioneering New England spirit.
“Now, here’s one of the myths about clambakes: they were not invented by the Wampanoags or Native Americans. I wish I could say that, because it would make a wonderful story. Matter of fact, we have no evidence that Native Americans used that practice. We do know that Native Americans all along the coast here, in Ipswich and Essex, were harvesting clams in great numbers. There are a lot of clam middens in this area. Many of them have been excavated. But what the Native Americans were doing, they would build a fire, throw the clams on the fire until they opened, and then they would hang the clams over tree limbs and let them dry out, and then they would skewer them with a piece of rawhide or bark. And then they would transport them to the Seneca Indians, up in Upstate New York, as a trade item. When [the Dutch] saw the beautiful Wampum belts that they were making with clam shells, they went and set up a factory to make Wampum belts, you know, using modern industrial tools. And of course, the overproduction of Wampum resulted in the devaluation of Wampum, and they just destroyed the industry then that they were after to exploit.” – Dave Sargent
What could be more emblematic of New England than a clambake? The act of feasting on clams baked over hot rocks on a beach is an American tradition that arose from the same invented mythology surrounding the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving. A common but unsubstantiated legend tells how the Wampanoag Indians of coastal Massachusetts taught the practice to colonists during their initial period of contact. While the evidence for the historic origins of clam baking is not conclusive, the clambake is beloved to tourists and New Englanders alike.
Many will argue that there is no finer way to enjoy clams than when they are fried. Today, any clam shack worth its salt serves a version of this golden treat: soft shell clams dipped in batter or rolled in corn meal and dunked in a bath of bubbling fat. If people have been baking, steaming, smoking, and boiling clams for thousands of years, how did this latecomer arrive on the table?
The frying of the very first clam has been hotly contested. On July 3, 1916, in Essex, Massachusetts, Lawrence, known as “Chubby,” and Bessie Woodman came up with the corn meal recipe and the method they still use to fry clams today at Woodman’s of Essex. This invention won them credit with Boston newspapers for frying the first clam.
Len Woodman describes the story of his grandparents, Chubby and Bessie, coming up with the idea to fry clams. Listen to the clip.
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.
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.
Aside from being delicious when fried, what exactly defines a clam? “Clam” is simply one title given to many different species of shellfish from the class of Bivalvia. The clams of New England thrive in our intertidal zone, the coastal areas where sand and sea meet. This zone is below water at high tide, and above water at low tide. This ecosystem has been providing a happy home for hard-shell and soft-shell clams for thousands of years, and has shaped life for the people dwelling there.
In Massachusetts, an ecosystem called the Great Marsh makes up a large part of the intertidal zone. The Great Marsh is 20,000 acres of nutrient-rich salt marshes, estuaries, tidal rivers, barrier beaches, and mud flats extending from Gloucester to Salisbury.
“[Shellfishing today] is also an environmental monitor. Because it’s in the intertidal zone, and it’s harvested by people who bring it back, people can see the health of that intertidal zone. And the health of that intertidal zone is closely correlated with the health of the marsh lands. Our salt marshes in the Great Marsh are home to two thirds of the fish and shellfish that are in the ocean. Without the salt marshes and the health of the intertidal zone, life in the ocean as we know it will not exist. So, on a regulatory level, it’s really important to protect land containing shellfish, or shellfish habitat, as well as to try to promote branding Massachusetts shellfish as being a safe and healthy food product.”- Dave Sargent
“Yes, this is what I have heard: The uniqueness of the Ipswich clam and the Essex Bay clam; clams grow best in estuaries that have an extreme tidal flow at the proper salinity. And those unique conditions exist right at the end of the Ipswich River and the Essex River. So clams just grow in abundance, and the taste of them is just magnificent because of that happy coincidence of all these variables. Yes, they grow good clams up in Maine, and when we’re short of that they dig them out of the mud and ship them down to us. But a lot of people just swear by the wonderful salty brininess, taste-of-the-sea of the Essex County clam.” – Joseph Carlin
Call it humble, but the clam is the basis of an industry which has supported and sustained local economies for more than a century. A great deal of work goes into digging clams, shucking them, processing them for consumers, transporting them, regulating the shellfishing environment, and creating the necessary equipment for these processes.
Because clamming has historically sustained towns like Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, and Gloucester, a shell fishing culture is apparent in those communities. Those who learned to be clammers from their fathers and grandfathers carry a legacy and a pride in this shared heritage.
Jon H. Grundstrom describes how he started clamming by himself while still a child. Listen to the clip.
“Aqua culture” refers to the purposeful propagation of shellfish and is much like farming. Clams reproduce by means of free-floating seed called spat, which, if left alone, will eventually drop down to the sand to begin growing. This spat can be collected and transferred to a flat for cultivation. Flats where clams have been reseeded are typically given extra protection from predators and are not dug upon until the stock has matured.
“Because shell fisheries are receiving uneven pressure because of the impacts from rainfall closures and other closures, there’s a lot of interest in municipal shellfish stock enhancement. And we’ve had a lot of dedicated volunteers in Gloucester who have been involved in that, naturally capturing free-floating spat in the natural environment and seeding in areas. Other communities have started doing that as well. We tend to call it public aquaculture, because it’s for the public benefit. But then there’s private aquaculture as well. The intertidal zone is under colonial ordinances — the public’s rights are still preserved for fishing, fowling and navigating, and that includes shell fishing. And we are looking at potentially allowing private aquaculture in areas where there hasn’t been a historical harvest of shellfish. – Dave Sargent
As the shellfishing industry has grown over the last century, so has government regulation of the trade. Today only those with a permit and a license from the shellfish department of their city can dig the flats, whether it’s for recreation or commercial profit. Permitted clammers are held to certain standards to protect the natural environment, but also to ensure the safety of the clams we consume.
Because clams use siphons to take in food and oxygen from their environment, they also take in any surrounding toxins or pollutants. When such conditions occur, measures are taken to ensure that no contaminated clams enter the market for human consumption. The same actions are taken when rainfall threatens to wash pollutants into waters where clams are harvested.
“Even though Paralytic Shellfish Poison has been highly publicized since 1972, the general public still doesn’t understand much about it. Paralytic Shellfish Poison, broadly referred to as Red Tide, is a live micro-organism swimming in the water. One of thousands of individual and identifiable species. When around in large numbers, clams suck them in in their quest for feed.”- Franklyn Goucher
“Closures of the flats are specific to location, but they are also species-specific. Certain species tend to siphon much more quickly. So they’re sampled regularly by Division of Marine Fisheries on a weekly basis beginning in April, all the way through November. And when Division of Marine Fisheries see signs of red tide, they tend to sample more frequently. When the counts get up close to the action level, which is eighty parts per million, then they’ll start sampling soft-shell clams as well. And if it shows that they are spiking, combined with other information, if it seems like we are in immediate threat for a red tide outbreak, things will be shut down. The modern day for red tide sampling goes back to 1972 here in Massachusetts, where we had an outbreak that was unprecedented before and since. People did get red tide at that time, and were hospitalized in Massachusetts. You know, so it’s something to be very concerned about.” – Dave Sargent
What does it take to dig for clams? Well, the tools of the trade are deceptively simple. Whether you are a commercial clam-digger taking in 500 pounds a day, or a recreational clam-digger bringing home a bushel for dinner, you still use the same technique: bent over the mud flats at low tide, dragging a short-handled metal fork through the sand to turn up one clam at a time. If you don’t have an original white oak basket made by Henry Jeffs from Essex, a burlap onion bag does just fine to collect your catch for the day. But think twice before you imagine that clam-digging is a walk on the beach.
“Clamming is an extremely difficult, hard, hard thing to do. You’re bent over, you’re pulling mud, and every 50 pounds of clams, you put it in the bucket, you pick it up and dump it into the bag, pick up the bag and put it into your boat, then pick up the bag and take it out of your boat, put it in your truck, take it out of your truck, put it into the basket where you’re selling it. And in addition to that, it’s mentally very draining. You basically just have your thoughts with yourself. And you basically have to continually motivate yourself to keep moving. It’s hard, alright. Then you have the elements. It can be really hot in the summertime with midgies in your ears and in your eyes, and in your mouth, you know. And it’s hot. While in the winter time it could be freezing out, the flats can be freezing and hard. So you have to find a puddle to dig through. So yeah, is it challenging, difficult work? Extremely. But the rewards can be good too. When you get home after a tide of clams, and you’ve worked hard, and you’ve sold your clams, and you’re sitting in your boat having a cold water, you feel pretty good about yourself. Because no one helped you. You did it. It’s on you, right?” – Kyle Woodman
“This basket is old. It was made by a man by the name of Henry Jeffs who was a clammer in Essex back at the turn of the last century, back in the early 1900s. I kept it like this because nobody makes these anymore. When I look at it, I see all the hard work that went into making that look like it does now. It’s made out of white oak — had to be white oak. I don’t know why, but that’s what I was told when I was your age. And in the winter time the clammers would make their own baskets. Henry Jeffs was the best.” – Len Woodman
Not only is clamming physically demanding, it also takes a winning combination of grit and love. The modern digger’s life revolves around the daily tides, rainfall, and the natural cycles of aquatic life.
“I really enjoyed the sense of freedom. It isn’t really the free uncomplicated existence that you’d like to believe it is. But the nice thing about it is it’s honest work if you do it right. And what you make at the end of the tide, at the end of the day, is honest, and that’s what you sell. You know, you can’t lie, and B.S. your way, and saying that you produced more than you did, and get paid for that.
When rainfall closures came into effect, it resulted in the fact that you might be open tomorrow, but not open for another month, which created this sort of gold rush type. So it creates a different environment. There are very few people now who shellfish as a stand-alone type of occupation, because of the uncertainty of when their next paycheck might be coming in. Usually they’ll combine that with landscaping, or carpentry, or painting houses, or some other activity, so that if they are closed for a period of time there is something else that they can be doing in the meantime in order to try to make ends meet.” – Dave Sargent
In the twentieth century and the decades preceding it, New England vacationers dug clams recreationally, as a family activity that was fun for children. On the commercial scale, however, the work of digging clams has largely belonged to men. During the summer months, some women dug while their husbands farmed or fished. Traditionally, women’s work was to develop masterful, clam-inspired recipes, such as the chowder mentioned in this poem. Historically, both women and men have done the work of shucking clams. Today in coastal Massachusetts, women from immigrant communities perform much of this labor for the commercial market.
As industry regulation increases and the natural environment is further studied and monitored, the profession of clam digging is changing. Because of the implementation of rainfall closures of the flats, it is nearly impossible for diggers to make a living without taking on additional work. But steady paying jobs often do not allow for the rising and falling tides that must dictate the clam digger’s life. Young people growing up in clamming communities have watched parents pull together a living from odd jobs. As a result, the number of commercial clam licenses distributed has decreased in many towns, and the age of clammers has risen. What is the future of this industry?
Men and women living in the North Shore will continue to work hard to put clams on your plate. But in order to do so, some say there will need to be further developments in aquaculture and purification plants, where clams are cleansed of toxins. Still others advocate for less stringent regulation of the industry.
“It’s definitely endangered as a career. There aren’t really a lot of young people coming along to this profession. A lot of the people are fifty or older, who were sort of part of that. Younger people want more of a stable occupation. Well, there are many people who still enjoy the idea of working with their hands, and fresh air, and being in the natural environment. And there’s a lot to be said for that. One of the nice things I like about my job now, as well as I liked about when I was shell fishing, is almost every day there’s one of those—where you take a deep breath and you go, ‘Ah’ moments, where it’s just the beauty of the sight before you, just sends shivers down your spine. Yeah, and that’s always nice.” – Dave Sargent
Rainfall closures may inflate the price of the clam plate at Woodman’s, but consumer desire for the briny bivalves has not waned since their propulsion to fame at the turn of the century. Though clamming communities must adapt to survive, the humble clam remains a celebrated symbol in the modern imagination of our distinctive New England heritage.
The Grundstrom family of Rowley, Massachusetts, includes four generations of clammers. Jack and his son John discuss how weather affects the business. Listen to the clip.