Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Wonders of the Fried Clam: A Love Story

Growing up in a lower middle class family on Boston’s North Shore, I was well aware that finances were perpetually tight. So, a family trip for a meal at a restaurant was a rare treat – a much-anticipated special outing. The most eagerly anticipated trip was the annual excursion to McIntyre’s Clam Stand in nearby Rowley.

After the death of their mother during the typhoid outbreak in 1925, my father and his older sister were raised by a motley assortment of bachelor uncles and aunts. By the time my siblings and I came on the scene, all that was left of the generation that had reared my father were Aunt Ethel and Aunt Lib, who still lived in the Chase family homestead. The home was a rambling ark that today would be described as representing the New Englander style of architecture. The northeast corner of the house featured a spacious front porch. Semiannual seasonal rituals included the Memorial Day weekend installation of the porch screens and wicker furniture, and the Columbus Day reversal of that process – returning the porch accoutrements to their off-season lair in the musty basement – next to the coal bin. By tradition, the responsibility of overseeing these perennial and cyclical projects fell to my father. My sister - Diane, my brother – Dave and I made up the work crew. By tacit understanding, after the porch installation had been successfully consummated, Aunt Ethel and Auth Lib would treat our family to a trip down U.S. Route 1 to nearby Rowley – home to McIntyre’s Clam Stand. It was an eagerly awaited event. Thus began my lifelong love affair with the fried Ipswich clam – Queen of the mollusks.

I cannot honestly say if my love for fried clams came about as a consequence of their singular and delicious flavor, or whether it is because the event of going out to eat was such a treat that I associate the taste of clams with the frisson that comes from experiencing a very special childhood delight. If McIntyre’s had featured corn dogs, then perhaps that particular morsel of health food would today be my favorite gastronomical treat. There may also be a “nature vs. nurture” dynamic at work here, as well. My maternal grandmother, Ruth Simmons Champoux, had grown up on the banks of the Merrimac River as part of a family that eked out a meager existence by digging and shucking clams near the clam flats at Simmons Beach in the humble and miasmal Joppa section of Newburyport. Clams are part of my noble bloodline!

Whatever the etiology of my love for devouring clams, over the years I have become a bit of a connoisseur of fried clams – and to a lesser degree – steamed clams. There are very few eating establishments that know how to properly prepare the humble clam so as to draw out every nuance of its savory delights. It is too easy to get it wrong – by overcooking, using the wrong cooking oil or not changing the oil often enough, choosing the wrong dipping batter, the wrong breading. I do not often indulge my taste for clams. Lest I attain to the mighty girth of Henry VIII, I need to ration my consumption of fried clams to just a few platters a year. So, being thus delimited as to the quantity of fried clams I will allow myself to consume, I must guard assiduously the quality of the morsels that make their way to my maw.

Through an often painful and sometimes glorious process of trial and error, I have narrowed down to three the number of restaurants that I trust to deliver a properly and lovingly prepared fried clam plate. I will describe them briefly. I have also added them to The White Rhino’s List of Favorite Links. They are all located with a thirty-mile radius of Boston. (Alas, McIntyre’s Clam Stand is no longer a going concern, having gone the way of Adventure Car Hop and Howard Johnson’s.)

Woodman’s of Essex –

Woodman’s leads the list because it is purportedly the place where the fried clam was invented on July 3, 1916 by Chubby Woodman. The fourth generation of Woodmans carries on the family tradition in this in-the-rough eatery on Route 133 in Essex – between Ipswich and West Gloucester.

The Clam Box, Ipswich -

Also located along the south side of Route 133 – between Rowley and Essex, the Clam Box has been serving up heaping platters of perfectly fried clams since 1938. On a typical summer evening, the line to get into the dining room or to the take-out counter can stretch into the parking lot and can consume up to an hour. It is well worth the wait.

Kelly’s Roast Beef, Revere, Saugus, Natick, Danvers -

I have never ordered roast beef at Kelly’s. Their fried clams compare favorably to the venerable restaurants described above. Established in 1951 on Revere Beach, the original location is a take-out only joint that is open in all kinds of weather – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To have the quintessential Kelly’s experience, order the clam plate and carry it across the street to the picnic pavilion that overlooks the beach. Be prepared to eat clams with one hand and fend of seagulls with the other. The gulls learned long ago that they would be hard pressed to find a tastier morsel than a Kelly’s fried clam!

I have been told that the Summer Shack also serves up good fried clams, but I have not yet tried them. I would love to hear from fellow clam aficionados!




Darin S said...

Flo's Clam Shack in Newport is a favorite down in RI!

Scott B said...

Go to Essex Seafood down the street from Woodman's for an off-the-beaten-path treat. Tell them Scott sent you.