10 Dec In Praise Of The Fried Clam
There are fried clams and there are FRIED CLAMS! The greatest fried food in the world (and I’m pretty serious about fried foods) is available in one small section of the United States. That’s it! If you doubt me then read on to find out how I came to this realization.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was almost impossible to travel any distance without spotting a bright orange roof and a Simple Simon weathervane. This was a Howard Johnson restaurant. There were close to 1000 back then serving 28 flavors of ice cream and platefuls of fried clams.
The clams were small, yet meaty, with a dense, ruffled veil of batter fried to a golden brown. Fried clams was a menu item since the early ‘30s when the first Howard Johnson opened. They had been revamped by the celebrated chef Jacques Pepin (his first job coming to America was working at Howard Johnson) so, despite being frozen in some corporate kitchen, they had some culinary stature.
Yes, the menu did list other items but to what purpose? As far as I was concerned at the time (late teens) Ho Jo’s (we all called it that) clam strips represented the summit of fried shellfish greatness.
Howard Johnson was a sit down restaurant with table service and it was my go-to spot for high school date nights.
Little did I know at the time that fried clams were a quintessential dish in New England and that it stirred Yankee passion like no other dish.
Diners in New England hotly debated the validity of clam strips (Ho Jo’s version) versus whole clam bellies. Advocates of the latter point out (correctly, as I learned) that whole belly clams (the big goey ones) are not only more nuanced, but also present a more arresting flavor.
On the other hand, I was still a teenger and the fried clams at Howard Johnson carried enough sweet/salty ocean flavor to convince me of its seafood heritage. The chewy texture of the clams and the crunch of the crust made for a lasting memory.
But things were about to change. In my mid-twenties, while vacationing in New England, I had my great awakening. As Newton “discovered” gravity by watching an apple fall from a tree and the Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, I ate fried clams in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and life was never the same.
For the first time in my life, I beheld the great fried clam. It was a crusty, pale-gold morsel, big enough to be one ravishing mouthful. It was a dense piece of food, like steamer clams, and at first it seemed like a tangled glob.
However, after eating a few, I realized that there were two distinct parts: a long, chewy neck and a tender belly.
It felt incredibly frail, as if it would fall apart when I lifted it from the container. It had a lot of sprightliness to the touch, as though the covering of crisp fried cornmeal would crumble at any moment.
Yet, that was the alchemy. When you tasted it the crust melted in your mouth. It had an infectious crunch, but any roughness turned sumptuous on the tongue. It was rich and exhilarating, one of those eye opening foods that elicit hunger long after common sense would say that your appetite was assuaged. From that day forward I was hooked and my journey commenced.
Fried clams are rarely done well outside of the New England coast. I’ve had decent renditions here or there but over-battered, over-fried clams, that taste more like fry oil than seafood, with bellies cooked so hard that no hint of juiciness remains are the norm.
To New Englanders the humble clam, which stars in chowders, clambakes, and clamcakes, reaches its alpha and omega when coated and fried. And ever since July 3, 1916, when Lawrence Woodman (aka Chubby), the founder of the iconic Woodman’s clam shack in Essex, Massachusetts, fried a clam in lard normally reserved for his famous potato chips, cooks have been trying to create the perfect fried clam.
Unlike barbecue pit masters, who rabidly guard their secret sauce recipe, fry cooks are open books
All work with the same four elements: soft shell clams, a dipping liquid, a coating, and oil. According to most cooks and owners I spoke to over the years the liquid is usually evaporated milk and the coating is nothing more than some combination of flours: regular, corn, or pastry.
Most clam shacks use canola or soybean oil, though Woodman’s still uses lard.
The Atlantic shore just north of Boston is America’s fried clam belt and over the years I have made countless trips to this citadel of the fried clam.
As my knowledge grew, and I became ever more serious about this delicacy, I wanted to know the size of the clams the shack was serving, exactly where they came from, what they were fried in, how many times the oil was changed, and how the kitchen sifted its meal.
I found that size is important. The best clams for deep frying are steamers large enough to pack a robust, salty, sea flavor. If clams are too small, like those from Canada, they don’t have much taste. The tastiest clams are those hand raked at low tide from beds in the Essex River in Massachusetts, where smooth sand and pristine waters combine to yield the sweetest most tender clams in the world. After eating them in Essex and Ipswich, you will be spoiled for life. The taste explosion will not be forgotten and any other clams, no matter how formidable, will always seem a little dull.
Not much changes along the fried clam belt, and that’s how clam lovers like it. I have been eating fried clams for over 40 years and there has only been one change: using vegetable oil instead of lard as the frying medium. For the most part, this cherished New England tradition can’t get any better; the cool and casual clam shack is the perfect declaration of the bliss of summer and the joy of being near the ocean.
Although every clam shack is different, they’re also somehow the same. You’ll never miss a clam shack when you see one – even if it’s been refurbished. You know the menu is going to have fried clams, fish & chips, lobster rolls, onion rings, french fries, and coleslaw. You know how it’s going to smell. You know it will have some silly seafood signs, weathered boards, and driftwood. You know you can drop in with sand on your feet and a bathing suit.
The best clam shacks offer more than a meal; they’re a destination. My 40-year quest has been to eat the best fried clams on earth. I’ve eaten them up and down the coast of New England (especially on the North Shore outside of Boston) and the following list includes the clam shacks that I found to be the standard bearers of excellence.
The Clam Box
This clam shack holds the crown for best fried clams in New England, and thus the world. Each handpicked batch of clams initially goes through an evaporated milk wash, followed by a coating of corn flour and white pastry flour, then is fried briefly once, then again until crisp and crunchy outside and firm but chewy inside. The twice-daily changing of the cooking oil completes this unbeatable formula. If you only visit one clam shack in your lifetime, this is the place to go.
J.T Farnham’s Seafood and Grill
Careful selection of fresh, whole belly clams, and its combination of vegetable oil and animal fat in deep fryers, endears this clam shack as one of the best to fried clam aficionados. Tender, flaky, chewy, and crunchy….all at the same time.
Woodman’s of Essex
The Woodman family claims that the fried clam was invented here in 1916, and they are still cooking them the same way today. Woodman still uses lard in their deep fryers, in contrast to other clam shacks. Their clams are sweet, tender, and crunchy, and it doesn’t hurt that the clam beds of Essex and Ipswich are the best in the world.
This shack serves up some excellent fried clams that are perfectly breaded and lightly fried for an appetizing, crunchy texture with each bite. They use a convection style of deep frying which results in crispy, puffy, exemplary fried clams.
Brown’s Lobster Pound
Brown’s uses a unique, labor-intensive method of preparing fried clams. The clams are immersed in an egg wash with a bit of milk, then dredged in flour. Then back in the egg wash followed by a visit to the cracker crumb vat. The end result is a fried clam rich in flavor and crunchy in texture.
A sleeper when it comes to fried clams. Lightly breaded and cooked in oil that’s frequently changed, these clams stand out for sweetness, crunchiness, and full-clam flavor.
As you can see I’ve made no secret of my absolute addiction to fried clams – especially clam shack style fried clams with big, luscious, profane, whole bellies. If Shakespeare had ever visited Ipswich, I’m convinced he would not have said the world is our oyster, but his metaphor would have referred to the fried clam.
Yet I fail to understand why this seafood delight seems to mystify the rest of the country. I can only conclude that most people have never had the real thing. If you haven’t had a fried clam in New England, then you haven’t had a fried clam.
Even Howard Johnson himself, the founder of the chain and a Boston native, realized you simply can’t freeze an Ipswich clam. Doing so destroys the water-heavy structure and the clam turns to mush in your mouth. That’s why Johnson used clam strips which are cut from deep water hard shell clams. Only clams dug, processed, and served within a few square miles provide the ultimate experience.
So if you want to indulge in the decadent, salty/sweet taste of a nonpareil, then you have to go to the source: New England, especially Ipswich and Essex, Massachusetts. Sorry to the rest of the world! That’s the way it is, but if you do make that journey, you will never regret it for the rest of your life.