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   The Deep-Fried Truth
   About Ipswich Clams

   by Nancy Harmon Jenkins

IPSWICH, Mass. - Was it truly a potato chip entrepreneur named Lawrence Woodman — known as Chubby — who invented the Ipswich fried clam? And did it really happen near here, on Boston's North Shore, shortly before noon on a steamy July 3 in the year 1916? Most food-invention stories are apocryphal at best and downright self-promotional at worst, but this one may just have a grain of truth.

No less an expert than Jasper White, the dean of New England chefs and a noted seafood authority, has faith in the legend. Mr. White uses $3,000 to $4,000 worth of Ipswich clams every week at his restaurant, Jasper White's Summer Shack, in Cambridge, Mass. Right now, at today's prices, that's about 40 gallons of shucked clams a week, he told me, adding that most of those Ipswich clams end up in his Friolator. (By my calculations, that's some 16,000 individual clams.)

But are Ipswich clams always, always from Ipswich? In fact, it's no secret among seafood suppliers and restaurants that most of the soft-shell clams currently sold as "Ipswich" clams — even in Ipswich — in fact come from Maine, where muddy tidal flats like those along the Damariscotta River and in Sagadahoc Bay yield a delicious harvest. An invasion of predatory green crabs, along with environmental pressures, have sharply reduced the number of local clams, experts say.

True or apocryphal, the story of the invention of the fried Ipswich clam — Mr. Woodman, faced with a huge vat of hot oil for his potato chips and a mess of clams harvested from the mud flats of his home town, reportedly had a eureka moment — is unabashed gospel for lovers of this regional specialty.

At its finest, an Ipswich fried clam, whatever its provenance, is a meltingly tender soft-shell clam body surrounded, belly and all, by a crumb coating that, when deep-fried (preferably in lard), becomes a salty, crunchy-crisp casing for the soft and sweetly briny clam inside. The combination is irresistible.

But what makes Ipswich clams so special?

"Oh, you know — it's the same thing that makes Clos Vougeot special," Mr. White said by phone from Cambridge, referring to the classic Burgundy wine. Is it "le goût de terroir," then — literally, the taste of the soil? Or, in this case, "le goût de la mer" — the taste of the sea?

"A lot of them are mudders," Mr. White explained. "They come from mud flats. And I think the mud ones are best. They're richer tasting, they don't have all that grit you get with the ones from sand flats."

Basically, Ipswich clams are steamers, or soft-shell clams, but it's where they live that makes them special.

The Ipswich clam flats, along with those in neighboring Essex to the south and Rowley to the north, are part of the Great Marsh, an extensive, hauntingly beautiful and biologically rich environment of salt marshes, tidal creeks and estuaries — some 17,000 acres stretching from Cape Ann north across the New Hampshire border.

At low tide, the flats can reach out a mile or more to where the sea laps the shore at Plum Island Sound. It is in this wet, salty, muddy environment that the soft-shell clam, Mya arenaria, thrives, at low tide burrowing into the mud to escape its predators (those crabs, mostly, and sea birds), then emerging to open to the cleansing seawater when the tide turns, as it does twice in each 24-hour period, to cover the flats once again.

Or at least the clam used to thrive here. In recent years there have been far fewer clams in the Ipswich-Essex-Rowley flats than ever before in history.

"We're getting a few," said Joe Pickul, a sales representative for the Ipswich Shellfish Company, one of the largest fresh seafood purveyors in the country and a major supplier of Ipswich clams. "But I'd have to say not even 10 percent," he added, of what he sells.

Mr. Pickul grew up in Ipswich and started digging clams with his father, he said, when he was 8 years old.

The current daily limit for commercial diggers on the Ipswich flats, according to Phil Kent, the Ipswich shellfish constable, is 180 pounds, about three bushels of clams, all of which must be dug on one tide.

"Used to be you could get that in two and a half hours," Mr. Pickul said, "but now I could spend the whole tide and not get 20 pounds."

Which is where those Maine clams come in. "Your mud clam is the sweetest," Mr. Pickul said as he walked through the Ipswich Shellfish Company plant last week. "It has a darker shell from the high amount of acidity in the mud. We also get clams from Chatham on Cape Cod, but they tend to be sand clams, paler colored and with a lot of grit. Your Rhode Islands are basically hard-shells, and Canada — well, they don't have such great consistency."

(New Yorkers curious about Ipswich fried clams can find them regularly on the menu at, among other places, Fresh in TriBeCa, where the clams come from the Ipswich Shellfish Company.)

There are a number of reasons why the population of native Ipswich clams has plummeted. There are those green crabs for one thing, a non-native species with a voracious appetite for soft-shell clams.

There have also been other pressures on the species, like upstream pollution and runoff. It may simply be that clams, like most other wild creatures, go through natural growth cycles. Or most likely, the reasons for the decline can be traced to a combination of factors.

"Years ago, when a lot came out of Ipswich, Ipswich clams became the standard," said Michael Hickey, the chief shellfish biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. "They got put on menus almost like they were a type of clam. There's still a lot harvested, but it's not what it used to be. For 25 years they've been in short supply."

Yet the legend of Ipswich fried clams continues. Why?

Back to Jasper White again.

"It's also that the folks in Ipswich really have an industry," he said. "They've got beautiful shuckers. If I had to shuck my own clams I'd have to hire six guys."

The shuckers at the Ipswich Shellfish Company are almost entirely Cambodian-Americans; part of a population of Southeast Asian immigrants who settled around the town of Lynn, just to the south of here.

The morning I visited the plant, there were some 30 white-capped and mostly silent women, working side by side at long tables, industriously sorting, shucking and cleaning clams. The clams had been dipped briefly in 180-degree water and then in cold water to shock them into releasing their skins from their shells, making it easier to pop open the shells and remove the clams. Each worker then nipped off the neck, or siphon, and deftly whisked away the mantle, or skin.

The women are paid by the piece — individual gallons, not clams — and Mr. Pickul said a good worker can produce a gallon or more an hour.

That's a lot of clams, but Ipswich Shellfish provides shucked clams to restaurants all over the country, especially in New England, where fried clams are considered a regional delicacy on a par with lobster rolls — which, truth to tell, they often accompany, for an unbeatable acme of richesse.

Route 133, which leads from Rowley to Ipswich to Essex and beyond, is the pilgrim road for fried-clam lovers. Woodman's, now run by descendants of that same Chubby Woodman who is said to have invented the fried clam, is high on the list of tourist destinations. There are others, too: J. T. Farnham's and Essex Seafood in Essex, and in Ipswich, the Clam Box, established in 1935 and owned for the last 18 years by Marina Aggelakis, called Chickie, who runs the place now with Dimitri, her son.

Mrs. Aggelakis, an imposing woman with a radiant smile who rules the Clam Box as if she were the queen of a particularly happy and fortunate land, has been in the restaurant business all her life. Her father, Louis Galanis, founded the famed Agawam Diner in nearby Rowley. But in Ipswich, she has clearly found her true calling.

Though the Clam Box serves other foods as well, it is fried Ipswich clams that draw the crowds, starting when the doors open at 11 a.m., often at that hour to white-haired folks who have been standing in line patiently for 30 minutes or longer, and many of whom, one suspects, have been patronizing the Clam Box for 60 or so years.

After a breakfast of Ipswich fried clams, Mrs. Aggelakis took me through her kitchen to show me how the clams are done. (The only secret she cheerfully refused to impart was the recipe for her superb coleslaw.)

Shucked clams are dipped in a bath of evaporated milk, then tossed in a breading mixture of yellow corn flour — not cornmeal, Mrs. Aggelakis emphasized, but finely ground "corn flour." (Later I determined that the corn flour was in fact a very finely ground corn meal; masa harina, widely available, makes a good substitute. Jasper White uses Rhode Island johnnycake meal.)

Quickly, so as not to let the breading get soggy, the clams are dropped in the first of two frying vats. After half a minute, they're removed and dropped into the second vat.

This way, she explained, excess breading is deposited in the first vat, and the oil in the second vat, where the clams spend the rest of their brief culinary life, stays cleaner and fresher. As is true of most of the other fried clam-shack proprietors, Mrs. Aggelakis also filters her oil daily.

And that's the real secret to fried clams Ipswich style: freshly shucked clams, light breading, fresh oil that is never allowed to go stale, and fresh frying.

"They say that Woodman's invented fried clams," Mrs. Aggelakis said, "but I believe we perfected them."

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