Clamming is a time-honored tradition-and industry-in Ipswich.
Ipswich has been tied to clams ever since Masconomet, chief of the Agawams, spent summers in the 1660s fishing and clamming on Hog Island. The salt, the mud beds of the tidal estuaries, and the ocean’s numerous nutrients all contribute to the clam’s abundance and taste, says Ipswich shellfish constable Scott LaPreste, a former clammer. “They taste real sweet, which is a function of the cold water. It keeps them fresh and firm,” adds LaPreste.
Clamming is still a robust business in town, worth up to $14 million annually. Despite all-weather digging, the whims of a clam’s lifecycle (it takes two to four years to grow to legal size), closings due to pollution or red tide, it makes sense as a good part-time living. The key to the clam’s survival is a cap of 125 commercial licenses, reserved for residents only. That ensures that only the serious stewards stay in business and self manage the 1,000 acres of flats.
Clammers dig in beds ranging from Plum Island Sound to the Castle Neck River. Residents can buy a recreational license with daily limits. Non-Ipswich residents can buy a day license. Need gear? Tedford & Martin’s Hardware on Hammat Street sells clam forks and baskets.
“Most dealers have their regulars they buy from year round,” says David Pulsifer, a clammer and the warehouse manager for Ipswich Shellfish Fish Market. They sell to distributors like Ipswich Shellfish, which in turn sells to restaurants like the Clam Box and Choate Bridge Pub in Ipswich, or Woodman’s and Farnham’s in Essex. A bonus: State rules dictate that because of the clear water, Ipswich clams can go straight to market without having to be cleaned.
Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman of Woodman’s may claim to have invented the fried clam, but Ipswich clammer Thomas Soffron took the surf clam, sliced it, fried it, and invented clam strips. The Soffron Brothers Company, started in Ipswich in 1938, had an exclusive deal with Howard Johnson’s restaurants to provide its trademark strips.
People will drive miles for a box of fresh Ipswich steamers dipped in clam broth and melted butter. They also line up at The Clam Box on Route 133, seeking just the right degree of crunch into the juicy fried clam. For some, summer is a box of Ipswich fried clams.