You can’t drive more than a couple of minutes on Cape Ann, Massachusetts without passing a clam shack. And on a small strip of Route 133, off the main drag in Essex, overlooking what is known as the Great Marsh, is the place where the locals stop: J. T. Farnham’s.
A good fried clam is a thing of finesse, a work of simplicity dependent on the practiced senses of a veteran cook—one like Joseph Cellucci. Joe has been cooking at Farnham’s since he bought the place with his wife, Terry. (Terry and Joe were customers.) In 1994, a few years after the Farnham family put the shack up for sale, Joe and Terry took the plunge into the restaurant business. They added “J.T.” to the well-known name of the fifty-three-year-old restaurant, but most people still know it simply as Farnham’s.
Once a ramshackle cottage, Joe and Terry have spent every winter making improvements to Farnham’s. They built out the kitchen and dining room and brought the bathroom inside. Most of the original furnishings remain, and the large windows flood the counter and dining room with light. On a warm summer evening, place your order, grab a cold one, and wait for your number to be called. Slide into a booth or, better yet, snag one of the large picnic tables outside along the water.
Farnham’s fried clams come with whole bellies, their soft and creamy center foiling the crunchy exterior. A perfectly fried, lightly breaded clam resembles an engagement ring, with a slender loop of muscle connected by a plump belly. Joe cooks them in the traditional fashion, dipped in an evaporated milk-based wash then dredged in yellow corn flour and fried in 375-degree oil.
The oil—known in the industry as MV, for “meat and vegetable,” a blend of lard and shortening—is the most important ingredient, besides the clam. “The real key is if your oil is clean, they’ll be delicious—and if your oil’s dirty, they’re not going to come out very good,” explains Terry. “We change our oil every couple hours. We have ten fryers and are constantly changing the oil. It comes as a fifty-pound solid cube and you melt it down. We also have fryers with canola oil, in case someone doesn’t care to have meat.”
Before Joe and Terry took over, the Farnhams used frozen fish for some of their dishes—but the Celluccis knew they had to source the fresh stuff. “Joe used to work at the fish pier growing up, so he said, ‘Why don’t I just go down there and get fresh stuff? Why are they using frozen fish?’ Of course by that time you had to go through a distributor, so we got set up and started bringing in fresh-caught haddock, sole, and day scallops.” As a rule, Joe talks to his fish guys daily, only asking what looks good, never the price. “We pay our bills on time, and we buy a lot of clams.”
As for those clams—referred to colloquially as “pissers” or “honkers,” for their long water-shooting necks—Terry and Joe spring for the “specials,” which are small-belly, dry-packed soft shell clams. “They are hand-shucked, and the workers get paid by the gallon, not by the hour—so small clams cost more,” says Terry. Dry-packing the clams costs more, too: “some dealers soak their clams to inflate the size and weight.”
The demand for small, whole belly clams in the busy summer months can push the price to $175 a gallon. Factor in all that MV, fries, onion rings, coleslaw, and tartar sauce, and J. T. Farnham’s Famous Fried Clam Dinner Plate is a steal at $22. Throw in a cup of chowder for $5 and you’ve got a meal fit for a king, or a small family.
All the work that goes into carefully sourcing and frying the clams pays off. To some, the first crunch might seem under-seasoned; most clam shacks do not salt their seafood after it is fried, and Farnham’s sticks with that tradition. But the corn-flour crust gives way to a burst of sweet-salty-brininess. There is no strange aftertaste, no metallic twang common in couple-day-old shellfish. The experience is pristine, like the flats from which the clams are lifted, and like the sunset view of the sea spread before you.