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Massachusetts: Clam Central, U.S.A.

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

Photo: Morgan & Owens

If you’ve never encountered great New England-style fried clams—the ones that make the short trip from the sandy Massachusetts mud of the estuaries and bays near Essex and Ipswich into the deep fryers of the best local clam shacks—it might be hard to imagine their lasting physiological impact.

Mild salivation at the mere mention of, say, J. T. Farnham’s or Essex Seafood is a common side effect. A paranoid inclination to scan the sky for clamscavenging seagulls often follows. Most telling is the increased output of the vacation rationalization gland, causing an unprecedented desire to explore America’s marshlands (specifically those closest to the short IpswichtoEssex stretch of Route 133, the clam lover’s road to joy) or, once there, to parlay a town’s selfawarded title of America’s Antique Capital to lure a reluctant travel partner back on the road for a few more plates of fried clams.

New Englanders fry softshell clams, the same kind cooked as steamers. In Essex and Ipswich, they don’t come from farther away than Newbury, a few miles to the north, or Gloucester, a few miles to the south, and are most often dug from beds that dot the intertidal zones around the two towns. Locals point to the area’s particular mix of sand and mud as one reason the native clams are so good, protesting that it’s too gravelly up in Maine or that the sand’s all wrong out on Cape Cod.

Ipswich is so closely identified with fried clams that the softshell has taken the popular name Ipswich clam practically everywhere in the country. Though the place is only 30 miles from Boston, it feels rather like a breakwater between plush suburbs and smaller seaside towns. It has meandering gravel sidewalks, plenty of space between the houses, and locals with an attitude of affable insularity.

That means that no one will tell you that bigbellied clams are the thing to ask for at the Clam Box of Ipswich, the most iconic shack in this most iconic clam town, but they are. The "Box" is a circa1935 structure that resembles a Chinese takeout container—a squat, square base with a flared open top—that’s impossible to miss among the modest Victorian houses and more anonymous commercial neighbors.

The difference in belly size is, in fact, a matter of size, not species; the bigbellied specimens I tasted at the Clam Box delivered a distinctive, juicy saline blast. The crisp and attentive deep frying here is nothing to grouse about, either. As at every shack, the Clam Box’s fritters are available as part of a "meal" that includes french fries and/or onion rings; in a hot dog bun as a "clam roll"; or on their own, typically by the pint or the plate.

According to local lore, it wasn’t until Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman introduced a shucked clam to sizzling oil in 1916 that the fried clam, a summer staple of New Englanders to this day, was born. His descendants now run Woodman’s of Essex—often cited as a paragon of friedclam excellence.

Despite its previous life as a shipbuilding powerhouse, Essex has retained an understated, classic New England image. Aside from the businesses that cling to Route 133—restaurants, the occasional gas station, and (mostly) antiques shops—it’s a quiet place, the grassy marshland occasionally interrupted by a field of strawberries or an impressive Colonial house on a wellmanicured plot of land.

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