ROWLEY – Buyer beware: The plate of Ipswich clams you order off a local menu might have been pulled from the mud or sand flats of Maine, Maryland, Nova Scotia or Cape Cod.
Only a true connoisseur would know the difference. But ask an expert, and he'll tell you — there is most definitely a difference.
It turns out it's become standard practice for restaurants to label their clams of the "Ipswich" variety, but there's no sinister plot to deceive the shellfish-consuming public. Instead, it's a difference of opinion on the true definition of what qualifies as a true Ipswich clam.
Are they born and harvested in the mud and sand flats of Ipswich Harbor and the surrounding Plum Island Sound? Or are they synonymous with any clam "with the belly on," as some believe?
Or, as legend holds, was the Ipswich clam born the day Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman, founder of Woodman's restaurant in Essex, accidentally knocked a whole-bellied clam into his deep-fried potato cooker, immortalizing the art of deep frying the tender clams?
It depends on whom you ask. Local clammers will tell you it has everything to do with where they were taken from the earth.
Despite years of digging and marketing whole-bellied clams from the mud flats off Rowley, even third-generation shellfisherman and Rowley Shellfish Constable Jack Grundstrom finds it hard to tell the difference between some Northeastern clams, which are similar in taste and consistency.
He thinks clams from Gloucester, Essex, Ipswich, Rowley and Newbury are created equally, since they feed off plankton drifting down through the protected 17,000-acre series of estuaries and tidal flats known as the Great Marsh.
"They can come from anyplace in this area, and people can classify them as Ipswich clams," Grundstrom said.