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Woodman's is a Winner by Carolyn Donovan

Our semi-annual/biennial/sesquatenial/Passamoquadial trip to Woodman's of Essex...

We drove 36.3 miles to eat a quart of fried clams. That’s one quart between the two of us, not one each. Between the clams (18.00) , the popcorn shrmp plate (8.00), and the two large cokes (2.00 each), we paid just over $1.00 a mile for the meal.

For those of you who’ve forgotten your elementary school science, a quart is volume, not weight. For those of you who’ve never had fried clams, there’s a lot of, space, in a fried clam. There’s the belly, and the strip, and when you coat them with batter and deep fry them, the shape stiffens. Thus, there’s more space in a quart of fried clams than in say, a quart of mashed potatoes. So, and I’m totally guessing here, we drove 36.3 miles for each of us to eat 6 ounces of fried clams.

I tell you this not so you would think we’re mental, but so you could gleam the smallest of appreciation for the fried clams at Woodman’s of Essex.

The great thing about being from Massachusetts is the intense pride some of us have about the firsts that have happened here; the first railroad, the first constitution, the first use of ether, the first time someone got flour on a clam and dropped it by mistake into a vat of hot oil. Guess where that happened? Go on, guess. That’s right, Woodman’s. Back in 1914, possibly on the Fourth of July – although that sounds just too good to be true so I think I’m making that part up – Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman invented the fried clam, in the very spot we were wolfing them down. Four generations later, the Woodman family is still serving unbelievably good seafood.

A New Englander's idea of heaven on earth

The menu consistes of clams, fish, shrimp, and lobster, served in various guises of boxes, plates, and sandwiches, plus other things when they’ve got it. We got the popcorn shrimp plate in addition to the clams, but the shrimp didn’t match the strength of the batter, and unfortunately had very little taste. I’m thinking the shrimp was Maine shrimp, which are tiny little shrimp, excellent in more delicate meals, but not in more robust ventures. Woodman’s doesn’t offer coleslaw with its plates, just french fries and onion rings (deep fried plate of food, anyone?), but from what I could see of the pleasantly full dining room, everything was eaten by everybody.

But the fried clams, oh, they make you sigh. Even though I grew up on the coast, we didn’t have any money for luxuries like fried clams. Mom used to buy those frozen breaded clam strips and would bake them in the oven. They were good for getting tartar sauce into your mouth, but nothing more. But Woodman’s fried clams, it’s like eating the sea. You can’t talk when eating Woodman’s fried clams. You know how the more pretentious food reviewers go on and on about being transported when eating something really, really good? Know I know what they mean. Oh crap, did I just get pretentious?

Essex is a North Shore town, one of those old New England whaling/fishing towns. Woodman’s abuts the Essex River, and is across the road from the estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. The place has been here a long time, and the dining room contains a bunch of  tables and high-backed benches. You stand in line, give your order and pay, then snag a table and wait for your number to be called. The drinks come from another counter. You know you’re in New England when a seafood shop with no table service and fill-your-own ketchup cups has Dewar’s listed on the drinks menu.

Wan and I played hooky to go up to Woodman’s. It was a weekday, and we took off around 3:30. It was a beautiful day, and perfect for our first long drive in the convertible. After a certain point on Route 128, you have to get off the highway and wind your way through some of the oldest (European-ly) inhabited country in the, uh country (Massachusetts also has original routes 1, 2, 3, and 4). It’s a beautiful drive, past old colonial farmhouses and 19th century mansions, and the drive is one of the reasons we go to Woodman’s.

We go to Woodman’s about three times a year, and every time we go, it’s always the same: terriffic.

Woodman’s of Essex


PO Box 349,Route 133, 121 Main St. Essex, Massachusetts 01929
Phone: (978) 768-6057 (800) 649-1773

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Photography by Wan Chi Lau