Who can claim the first fried clam?
So when someone in this mollusk-rich region claims to have invented the fried clam, it merits a little digging around.
On Sunday, the venerable counter service eatery Woodman’s of Essex will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of the fried clam by its founder, Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman. The National Day Calendar has acknowledged the event by declaring July 3 National Fried Clam Day.
Now, one can question the validity of the National Day Calendar. But the Massachusetts Senate also saw fit to commemorate the anniversary with a resolution in July 2014.
In 1914, Chubby and his wife, Bessie, opened a small concession stand on Main Street in Essex, where they sold homemade potato chips that were popular and fresh clams that Chubby dug that weren’t selling so well. Then on July 3, 1916, a local fisherman named Tarr jokingly suggested that Chubby fry the clams the way he made his homemade potato chips. Everyone laughed it off, but that night, Chubby and Bessie whipped up a recipe from corn flour and evaporated milk, and they fried the battered clams in a kettle of lard.
Steve Woodman said that the restaurant uses the same recipe 100 years after the invention.
But was it an invention?
State Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the Republican minority leader and a Cape Ann native, said that over his quarter-century in the Legislature, he’s never heard anyone counter the story. Tarr, who introduced the resolution in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the store as well as the invention of the fried clam, acknowledged that he may be a descendant of the jocular fisherman who gave Chubby the idea. That affiliation, he said, would not prejudice him against telling the truth if he found the fried clam story to be false.
“I’d be the last person to stick my head in the mud over it,” the senator said. “And if the tide turned, I’d be the first one to say.”
Nor was the owner of the Clam Box of Ipswich, one of Woodman’s staunchest competitors, willing to dispute its clam claim.
“They invented the fried clam, but we’ve perfected it,” said Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis, citing her signature blend of vegetable and beef oils as an improvement over the Woodmans’ lard recipe.
If Chickie won’t contradict Chubby, can anyone?
Turns out, if you go back far enough, you can contradict anything.
First of all, in New England, any firsts among European settlers have to be qualified — Native American nations may have older claims to regional culinary specialities, such as clam chowder.
We could find no record of local tribes deep-frying clams. But at least one cookbook from the mid-19th century, “Miss Beecher’s Domestic Recipe Book,” has a section on page 66 about how to prepare clams that ends “Clams are good put into a batter and fried.” And when Yankee Magazine published a story in 1979 about Chubby Woodman’s invention, it received two rebuttals in response.
One writer stated that her uncle, Hosea B. Quint, who had a fish market in West Lynn, “fried clams every Friday in his shop as early as 1910.” The other writer recounted the “Shore Dinner” her mother served as a waitress at the Chase House in Salem Willows in 1912, which “consisted of fish or clam chowder, fried lobster, fried clams, fried perch, and french-fried potatoes (75¢).”
The Woodmans acknowledge these stories; Steve Woodman said he has heard that some sort of fried clams were on the menu at the Parker House in the 1850s or 1860s.
“From what I’ve read and, from talking to old-timers, what they used to do is pan-fry clams,” Woodman said. “They really didn’t have that deep-fry like we do with potato chips.”
The Woodman siblings state that they lay no claim to the invention of fried clam strips — that’s another story — or various pan-fried recipes.
“We did not invent the sauteed clam,” said Doug Woodman, 59.
What the Woodmans will commemorate on Sunday is the invention of the deep-fried clam, a.k.a., the clam that is fried in oil (from lard), that is, a steamer clam with its belly intact that is fried like a potato chip.
They’ll be handing out free samples, if you want to go up and check the story out yourself.