Ipswich, MA – While many Americans back in the day were getting their kicks on Route 66, I was getting my thrills from the sea on Route 133. That’s Massachusetts Route 133, specifically the section running from Ipswich to Essex, Massachusetts, known as the “Clam Highway.”
This nine-mile stretch of road links two historic colonial towns with a shared passion for harvesting and serving up seafood, in particular the fried clam.
My connection with Route 133 runs long and deep.
When I was growing up in Ipswich it ran directly past my home. For one brief period as a kid, I used to make terrifying 6 a.m. runs along the twisting roadway from Ipswich to Gloucester to retrieve huge blocks of ice for Grant’s Seafood, one of the town’s many seafood restaurants.
I was about 14. Mr. Grant was about 55 and he drove his overloaded truck at about 80 mph. At 6 a.m., he explained, the Essex police would be eating donuts at the Village restaurant, so no need to worry.
Later I was the food critic for six area newspapers. Writing under the pseudonym Colleen Smacznego (Smacznego means “enjoy your meal” in Polish), I visited and reviewed restaurants from the Clam Box in Ipswich to J.T. Farnham’s in Essex and all those in between.
Ipswich and Essex, located on the “shoulder” of Cape Ann, north of Boston, was once one town. Essex broke off from Ipswich in 1819. But, topographically, both remain linked by extensive salt marshes and access to the all-important clam flats and, of course, Route 133.
The clam in question is soft-shelled and is most often eaten either steamed (“steamers”) or fried with its “whole-belly” intact. While called “Ipswich” clams, similar bi-valve molluscs are also sourced from Maine and Maryland. The largest distributor is Ipswich Shellfish, whose yellow-and-blue trucks can be seen all along the East Coast.
A local rival company, Soffron Brothers, specialized in “clam strips,” created by harvesting a “belly-less” section from the far larger, hard-shelled sea clam. For more than 30 years, Soffron had an exclusive contract to supply scores of Howard Johnson restaurants with clam strips.
The origin of the fried clam is a matter of dispute. According to Essex folks, it was concocted by Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman, who, on July 3, 1916, dredged some whole-bellied clams in corn meal, fried them up in lard and created a culinary item that no less an authority than Howard Johnson would later proclaim to be “sweet as a nut.”
Woodman’s claims this is the origin story of the “New England Fried Clam.”
Not unexpectedly, Ipswich people take exception.
According to “Stories from the River’s Mouth” by Sam Sherman, “True Ipswich clams were fried by Honey Russell and served at Russell’s Lunch.” While Sherman cites no exact date, the implication is that this, too, happened in 1916 and that by using “corn flour, not corn meal,” Russell had invented the “true Ipswich clam.”
As an Ipswich native, I suppose I should care about this, but to me it’s just a tempest in a deep fryer.
My favorite place to get fried clams is in Ipswich: the Clam Box. It is north of the town center and can’t be missed, as it looks exactly like the boxes take-out clams have traditionally been served in.
Founded in 1935, the current structure was erected in 1938 and has become a regional landmark. Their mantra is “We don’t claim to have invented the fried clam, but we perfected it.”
Founded by one of the many Greek-American families involved in the local seafood industry, they’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling that promise. My preference is to order a full plate with a side dish of coleslaw and some onion rings; but a clam roll is an excellent option for those looking for a bit less.
Another good place for fried clams in Ipswich is the Choate Bridge Pub, located near America’s oldest stone arch bridge, which spans the Ipswich River.
Here you are more likely to be among locals and have access to local and national brews. And the Ipswich Clambake Company on High Street gets good reviews.
In Essex, Woodman’s is certainly a must – and it offers the kind of fun “in the rough” family dining experience that many associate with clam and lobster “shacks” of old.
However, if you are looking for something a bit more refined, the Village Restaurant up the street is a good choice; it is the place I take my three sisters when we want seafood.
But in reality there are many good choices between the two towns. For example, Farnham’s in Essex, while only open between March and December, offers one of the most spectacular marshland views you’ll find anywhere on the East Coast.
Now I know what you might be thinking at this point: do I really want to go all that way just for a lunch or dinner?
My answer is that you might come for the clams, but you’ll want to stay for the two towns’ history, their scenic beauty, and Crane, one of the best white-sand beaches anywhere.
If you go
If flying, Ipswich and Essex are most easily accessed from airports in Boston or Manchester, New Hampshire. While there is MBTA train service to Ipswich from Boston, your best bet is to rent a vehicle.
For accommodation, there are several good places. We enjoyed Kaede Bed and Breakfast atop Town Hill near downtown Ipswich on our last visit. Located in a large 1845 Federalist-period structure, the hosts offer New England hospitality with a Japanese accent. The Ipswich Inn Bed & Breakfast also gets good reviews. The Inn at Castle Hill is pricier, but puts you closer to the sea and beach.
If you decide to stay in Essex and would like a true colonial experience, the 1695 Cedar Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast might be just the ticket (don’t worry, they have all the modern amenities).
But with any restaurant or inn, given the waxing and waning COVID-19 restrictions, it is best to check ahead.