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.
Shellfish from Canada and Maryland, on the other hand, don't qualify. While they are enticing to area restaurants due to their low price and have the "belly" on like an Ipswich clam, Grundstrom said they're easily identified for their inferior quality.
"Maryland sells their clams much cheaper than we do," Grundstrom said. "So does Nova Scotia and Maine, but our clams are so much better. The clams in this area are probably the highest-quality clams around."
Grundstrom said Maryland's clams are mealy and don't have a nice firm texture to withstand frying that well. And Nova Scotia clams are much smaller than their southern neighbors, he said.
"It takes them 5 years to grow to 2 inches, where it takes us a year and a half," Grundstrom said.
Grundstrom said many vendors will list on their menu the Ipswich-style clam, which they take to mean any deep-fried clam. They can purchase a cheaper clam from somewhere far away and sell it to the throngs who drive Route 1 all summer long in search of local, fresh seafood.
"Nova Scotia clams taste good," Grundstrom said. "They hope they can put them out there and disguise them as native clams. You can't say it's an Ipswich clam – but lots and lots of people do it."
One of the reasons for this is that local dealers have a tough time getting enough clams locally to meet seasonal demands, especially since area clam beds are subject to regular closures with every heavy rainfall, not to mention the annual threat of red tide, a bacteria that renders the clams inedible, Grundstrom said.
For that reason, even the Ipswich Shellfish Co., a wholesale company that distributes clams far and wide, must resort to finding clams elsewhere.
Most area experts agree Cape Cod and Maine clams are a good alternate source in the event of local closures, even if the Cape's tend to be gritty due to the fact they're harvested from sand flats, and Maine's tend to be much darker in color due to their particularly acidic, muddy environment. But most agree that the clams that grow in mud flats tend to be the best.
"Maine would be my next choice definitely," said Marina "Chickie" Aggelakis, owner of the famous Clam Box on Route 1A in Ipswich. "They're the closest things to Ipswich as far as I'm concerned."
Aggelakis advertises her fried clams as "native," which means they come from area waters primarily, except in the event of a closure due to heavy rainfall or red tide.
She purchases her shellfish from Ipswich Shellfish Co., and since her restaurant (designed to look like an open box of fried clams) attracts long lines of customers throughout the year, she demands and receives a certain quality of clam.
Her dealer sorts out the small to medium-sized clams, which she prefers for frying, and they know she'll stop selling clams that week if the only ones available are from Canada.
"They're really teeny," Aggelakis said of Canadian clams. "They're like eating peanuts, and they don't have the flavor that ours do."
The Park Lunch on Merrimac Street in Newburyport has been serving up the Port's favorite fried clams for years, and while kitchen manager Dan Wilmot is reluctant to part with the secret frying recipe, he admits Ipswich clams are part of what makes their clams so consistently yummy.
"They're the ones we want," Wilmot said of the local variety.
If local clams aren't available, he said he simply takes them off the menu.
"Our standards are high," he said. "If you come in and we don't have clams on the menu it's because they weren't up to standard."
Wilmot purchases his clams from Savage Seafood Co. of Rowley, a dealer that supplies David's Fish Market (Salisbury) as well, which in turn provides the Starboard Galley of Newburyport with its whole-bellied Ipswich clams.
Like the Park Lunch, David's Fish Market also stops selling clams when they can't be harvested from the local flats.
That means fried clams from the Starboard Galley can be counted on as the real Ipswich deal, even if the restaurant's Ipswich clam strips, as they're listed on the menu, are really just deep-fried slices of large ocean clams taken from the waters off Rhode Island – no doubt named for the deep fried process rather than their point of origin.
In fact, any time clam strips are on the menu, Aggelakis said they have no claim being called Ipswich clams. Made famous by the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain, she says clam strips – sliced from ocean clams – haven't been harvested from area waters in years.
"They're really not (Ipswich clams)," Aggelakis said. "Those sea clams are taken from Rhode Island and New Jersey."