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Massachusetts: Clam Central, U.S.A.

Morgan & Owens Fried clams from the Clam Box of Ipswich.

Photo: Morgan & Owens

Across the street from the Essex River, Woodman’s is the largest clam shack in the area and the most like a theme park: a separate shack on the premises sells all manner of Woodman’sbranded apparel and collectibles.

On my visit to the Clam Box, ReaLemon or some other equally insipid citricacid product has replaced the real thing, and the clams themselves lack the liveliness, the pop, the addictive quality of the offerings at other local spots. However, I wouldn’t pass through the area without sampling Woodman’s chowder. The broth is thin and milky, but not at all wanting in richness, and dotted through with gently cooked clams and chunks of potato with just the right balance of firmness and fallingapartness.

As I left Woodman’s near dusk one day, I saw a wild turkey scuttle across the road between the White Elephant’s antiques "outlet" (very good deals, lots of junk) and its main location (still some good deals, plus better junk). Next I headed east down Route 133, where the sprawling marshland gives way to a thick stand of oak and elm trees. That’s where I found Essex Seafood, a tidy little white shack and retail fish market, complete with lobster tanks and plenty of the local catch—haddock and sole from Gloucester, softshell clams from Essex, and shrimp from Maine. Of the places I visited, this was the only one that shucked its own clams, and the difference is clear: these clams are fresher, sweeter, and plumper.

The last stop on my quest was J. T. Farnham’s, where the specialty is smallbelly clams. Terry Cellucci and her husband took over from Mr. Farnham himself 14 years ago, when none of his kids wanted to carry on the family business.

Though all of the clam shacks I visited use the same basic method, which produces a fairly similar crust—clams are dipped in an evaporated milk wash, dusted with finely ground corn flour or a mix of corn flour and wheat flour, then deepfried—each recipe has its own secret twists. Mrs. Cellucci said one of hers was using eggs from Hardy’s Hatchery, a local chicken farm, in the milky mix. I gilded the lily and ordered a plate of fried cod cheeks as a side to my clams at Farnham’s, and each nugget turned out to be more astonishingly creamy and rich than the one before it.

As with all good clam shacks, there’s a line to contend with. But the lines, like the regional lingo—knowing your belly sizes, calling things native (not local), knowing when to skip over perfectly good letters in order to properly pronounce the names of towns like Gloucester (Gloster)—are part of the experience.

And if you do get a sidelong glance for not dropping your r’s, so what?It’s a pittance to pay for the pleasure of putting away a plate of Farnham’s clams—their gossamerthin cornflour coating crisped to the goldenest of browns, the briny clams firm but moist inside, tasting ineffably of the shallow waterway-slashed landscape just yards beyond the edge of your picnic table. With a bottle of whatever’s on offer from the Cape Ann Brewing Company providing hoppy relief from the wait in that line of sunstroked daytrippers and relaxed, withtheprogram natives, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Peter Meehan is a regular contributor to the New York Times.

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