Shell-Shacked: Woodman's Draws Fried Clam Fans In July 1916, Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman's roadside potato chip stand wasn't doing so well. So Chubby tried tossing some battered clams into boiling oil and, as the restaurant says, "made culinary history." Chubby opened a clam shack in Essex, Mass., which is still there.
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Shell-Shacked: Woodman's Draws Fried Clam Fans

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Shell-Shacked: Woodman's Draws Fried Clam Fans

Shell-Shacked: Woodman's Draws Fried Clam Fans

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

There's still some time before school starts to sneak in a final summer getaway. And rather than spend a pile of cash traveling to Disneyland or some distant national park, a lot of people are staying close to home this summer. We've been sending our reporters out to discover the obscure summer attractions near where they live. NPR's Chris Arnold takes us to a seafood mecca up the coast from Boston.

CHRIS ARNOLD: It's summertime here in Boston, and I wanted to find the best locally-famous place to go get some seafood. So I called my friend, Joe. One thing you should know about Joe, he loves seafood, particularly lobsters and clams.

Mr. JOE DOUILLETTE (Boston Resident): Well, I grew up on the beach. You grow up on the beach, I think the natural inclination is to want to eat everything that you see. And then you get to the fried food, and then, oh my God, it's like anything fried is good, but a clam fried is heaven.

ARNOLD: Joe, his last name's Douillette, digs clams himself. He's not a seafood professional. He teaches video production to high school kids. But he knows all kinds of clam and lobster shacks around New England.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: Well, I used to work in a clam shack in Marblehead called Flynnies at the Beach, which doesn't exist anymore. But I fried clams. And I brought calamari to the menu, too, because they weren't doing calamari.

ARNOLD: So you are a kind of a professional.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: I would consider myself a frying professional.

ARNOLD: Of seafood.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: A professional fryer, a professional seafood fryer. Yes.

(Soundbite of car reversing alarm)

ARNOLD: All right, so we're in my car now, and we're going to go somewhere. Joe, where are we going?

Mr. DOUILLETTE: We're heading to Woodman's, the birthplace of the fried clam.

ARNOLD: What do you mean the birthplace of the fried clam?

Mr. DOUILLETTE: It's where the fried clam was invented.

ARNOLD: Woodman's Roadside Clam Shack in Essex, Massachusetts is where, nearly 100 years ago, they say the first clam was battered up and deep fried.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: I don't know what life would have been like if the fried clam hadn't been invented. So this is kind of like a mecca.

ARNOLD: All right. So we're pulling into Woodman's here.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: Yes, baby.

ARNOLD: What are you thinking, Joe? What are you feeling?

Mr. DOUILLETTE: I don't know. It's like the whole body just starts to, you know, kind of get itself ready. Imagine little fat bellies dropping into the oil, start to salivate.

(Soundbite of frying)

ARNOLD: In Woodman's kitchen, standing between vats of hot lard with clams sizzling away in them, we find Steve Woodman. It was Steve's grandfather who started it all, the somewhat hefty man they called Chubby Woodman.

Mr. STEVE WOODMAN (Owner, Woodman's Clam Shack) : That's right. That was his nickname, Chubby.

ARNOLD: The year was 1914, World War One was getting underway. Babe Ruth was a rookie for the Red Sox. That's when Chubby and his wife, Betsy, opened up a new store here. They sold fried potato chips to people passing by. The nearby mudflats were full of clams, and after a couple of years, Chubby got to thinking.

Mr. WOODMAN: Actually, 92 years ago, my grandfather came up with the idea of putting some fried clams in his chip fryalator to deep fry them. And the July 4th parade was coming through, and he put a big sign up, fried clams, and sold 35 dollars worth of product that day. And that's the most he ever took in any day of operation. So he wasn't a stupid man, so he kept them on the menu.

ARNOLD: Since then, five generations of Woodman's have been working here, and a lot of people have come to love those fried clams. The restaurant's won all kinds of best seafood awards. This summer, they're selling about 20,000 clams in a single day on the weekends, with a line out the door, and the kitchen staff calling out numbers as they come up.

WOMAN: 271!

Mr. WOODMAN: It's a great place to people-watch. You could, in the same dining room, have a U.S. senator or congressman. At the table right next to him could be a family coming in that's not doing well, maybe on welfare, just cashed their check, and they're coming here for a special treat.

ARNOLD: So does the congressman have to wait in line like everybody else?

Mr. WOODMAN: Yes, they do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: In the back of the restaurant, retirees Alice and Richard Quinn (ph) are leaning back in their chairs after eating their lunch. Actually, the couple now lives in Arizona, but every time they're near Boston, they make sure to come back to Woodman's.

Ms. ALICE QUINN (Woodman's Clam Shack Patron): We've been coming here - my father took us here in the 1930s.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: Wow.

Ms. QUINN: Our kids remember coming here.

ARNOLD: Wait, what did you guys get today?

Ms. QUINN: We got a lobster, clams, scallops, onion rings, and clam broth.

Mr. RICHARD QUINN (Woodman's Clam Shack Patron): You don't get that in Arizona, for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: And, apart from all the tradition, you get to eat the clams.

Mr. QUINN: That was a good clam.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: Definitely nice.

ARNOLD: They are good.

Mr. DOUILLETTE: I don't think we ordered enough clams.

ARNOLD: Chris Arnold, NPR News.

BRAND: Mmm, delicious. Day to Day continues in just a moment.

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