The Old Town & the Sea
Find your sea legs — and claws, and tails — among the clam and lobster shacks and restaurants around Gloucester, MA, a place steeped in maritime history and atmosphere.
My first memory of Gloucester is of waking to fog as thick as a milkshake, hanging on the gunwales of small boats, rolling among the lobster pot buoys, then breaking suddenly over the harbor as the sun rose like a big boozy grin. The rest of the day is a blur of fried clams, beer and shrieking across the water in a 13-foot Boston Whaler, teeth rattling, making a mental note to strike “sea captain” from my list of future occupations — but nonetheless having an insane amount of fun, as if at a waterpark run by very respectable pirates.
That was four years ago. My girlfriend, Emily, had brought me to her family’s summer home in East Gloucester. It was all very foreign to me back then. I was raised in the Midwest, so I’m accustomed to land.
I used to get queasy watching The Love Boat. Emily, on the other hand, comes from a noble, seafaring race of strong-legged New Englanders. Seamanship, I learned, is a kind of Freemasonry, with initiation taken (in my case at least) by choking back vomit while bouncing past the breakwater.
But I found my sea-legs, sort of, and Gloucester soon disclosed all of its ample, brawny charm. It became an almost mythological place to me, a Venice on the North Atlantic: the fieldstone houses, the tiers of fishing boats lashed to the wharves, green hills sloughing down to the harbor, schooners tacking along on mysterious errands, not to mention lobsters up to my eyeballs, peerless striper fishing and — best of all — fried clams! I mean, I’d never even seen a fried clam until college, and then not one you’d gamble on. In Essex County, which encompasses Gloucester and the mollusk-rich sands of Ipswich, clams are freshly plucked and batter-fried by the pail-full; at places like Clam Box of Ipswich, Woodman’s of Essex and JT Farnham’s (also in Essex), they’re consumed in the manner of a lion tucking into a zebra. And the lobsters in local eateries like The Lobster Pool in Rockport are of Rabelaisian grandeur: fat, succulent and plentiful enough to toss in the juicer each morning without the wallet thinning much (though, as tempting as that might sound, I’d advise against it). The standard approach works great: elbows squared, head down, bibs fastened by the yard.
Which is all just to say that, well, what I find most remarkable about Gloucester is hard to pin down. Depending on when I’ve last eaten, I’d make a case for the shellfish. But my love of this town also has something to do with its sprawling, vaguely antique, backwater sea-shanty magic. Or the fact that it’s entirely devoid of pretense or snobbery, or actual waterparks. And the additional fact that I can galumph down to the rocks, beer in hand, and plop into the ocean whenever I please, with no more than a few cormorants on hand to share the honor.
GLOUCESTER LIES about 35 miles northeast of Boston, on what’s known as Massachusetts’ North Shore, where it occupies most of the southeastern portion of the Cape Ann peninsula, sandwiched between Ipswich Bay to the north and Massachusetts Bay to the south. The town is cleaved in two by the Annisquam River, and some locals refer to the land east of the Annisquam as “The Island.”
Gloucester is within striking distance of two of the richest fishing grounds in the world — the Georges Bank and Stellwagen Bank — which is partly why the American fishing industry was born here. The first fishing stages were set up here in 1623, and a memorial statue along the harbor has the names of 5,370 local men lost at sea inscribed on it. Parts of The Perfect Storm were filmed in town (it’s where the actual ship and crew were based), and for anyone seeking local color, the bar depicted in the film — the Crow’s Nest, located downtown near the harbor — is still an old fishermen’s haunt. Although Gloucester’s maritime glory has faded — partly because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently imposed new catch limits and a catch-share management system that have driven some fishermen out of business — the town still processes more than 15 million pounds of fish a year.
Gloucester’s lobstersmen, however, are doing fine. In fact, up and down the eastern seaboard, lobstering is a model of a sustainable fishery, thanks mostly to conservation guidelines established a generation ago. About 200 lobstermen operate around Cape Ann, and from almost every vantage onshore, in rain or shine, high seas or low, you can see crews of barnacled men (and a few women) hauling traps from the water, occasionally shouting the most ingenious and poetic expletives.
Last summer, I met one of these men, Peter Prybot, who was entering his 50th season on Gloucester’s lobster grounds. Prybot — who tragically passed away last month at the age of 63 in a lobstering-related accident — was a big, gentle man with hands that betrayed years of toil in a remorseless industry: massive, swollen, crusty old claws. He came to lobstering early, at age 11, when he spied a lobsterman setting traps in the harbor. The next year, he had his own seine boat and a dozen traps in Lanes Cove. He had several close calls in his life, including a day in the late 1980s when he was swept overboard in his oilskins and nearly drowned while his boat was smashed to kindling on the rocks. It didn’t dampen his enthusiasm, however. At the time of his death, Prybot was working seven days a week, tending to 350 traps in the waters around Cape Ann.
We spoke in the living room of his giant white Colonial in Lanesville, a coastal village just north of Gloucester. There was a big red barn out back and a well-manicured lawn. Talking to him made me happy; lately I’d been fretting about lobsters. Their stocks fell in the 1990s and have been slow to recover, and I’d been eating so many lobsters that I’d begun to worry I was solely responsible. But according to Prybot, the ’90s population dip was a cyclical downturn. These days, lobsters are thriving. “There are good years and bad years, but there are always plenty of lobsters to be caught,” he said.
The biggest threats to the lobster stock, he said, are striped bass. Protected in Massachusetts since 1985, when there were only about 12.5 million, stripers rebounded to an estimated 52.8 million in 2008. This is fantastic for sport-fishermen, but dicey for lobsters. The two species occupy the same breeding and molting grounds, and stripers’ jaws are tailor-made to tear even adult lobsters to shreds.
Still, lobstering was clearly good to Prybot. Talking to him, I got the impression there were maybe even too many lobsters, like they were quietly amassing a huge conquering army, plotting a global occupation. Prepare to greet our crustacean overlords.
Prybot sells his lobsters to Mortillaro’s, one of several wholesalers in Gloucester where you can buy them fresh off the boats. Across the harbor, at Captain Joe & Sons, lobstermen float right up to the back door and unload their catches into massive cold-water tanks. For years, Emily’s parents have bought lobsters
directly at Captain Joe & Sons, which is owned by Joe Ciaramitaro and his cousin, Frankie, and was started by their grandfather in 1953.
Ciaramitaro’s love for Gloucester runs deep. After Charles Olson, he’s probably the most prolific chronicler of the area, principally through his website, Good Morning Gloucester (which gets 15,000 to 22,000 hits a day). Last Labor Day weekend, we chatted in his parking lot as a flood of people arrived for lobster. “Two chicks, please!” they shouted from their cars (a chick is a lobster weighing between 1 pound and 1.18 pounds). I’d been trying to articulate what exactly I liked most about Gloucester, when Ciaramitaro aimed his chin at the harbor and said, “Gloucester... it’s almost an embarrassment of riches.
Except that it’s not too much of a good thing. It’s just the right amount.”
We chewed on that a while, watching a purple sky begin to pass into night. A tugboat burped and bellowed in the harbor, reminding me it was nearly the cocktail hour, when Emily’s family would gather on the porch to toast the tenacious sage Neptune, provider of so many salty, extraordinary moments in Gloucester. And I then realized my hair was still wet from the ocean. I dashed to my car. If I hurried, there was still time for one last dip before dinner.
One event during St. Peter’s Fiesta is usually pretty hard to grasp.
The annual St. Peter’s Fiesta in June saturates Gloucester in good cheer — and a lot of liquor. The highlight is an event called “The Greasy Pole,” in which dozens of young men attempt to seize a flag pegged to the end of a 45-foot telephone pole that’s affixed horizontally over the harbor and coated in industrial-grade grease. The police not only sanction this event, but ardently celebrate it — and for good reason: It’s crazy fun to watch. June 22-26, stpetersfiesta.org
Who serves Essex County’s finest fried specimens?
Known here as “longnecks,” “steamers” or just plain “clams,” fried clams are a briny, fat-bellied specimen dug from tidal mudflats dotting the coastline from Gloucester to Newbury, batterfried and usually served with french fries or onion rings, and sometimes both. Opinion is divided among Gloucesterians about who makes the best, and at the risk of sparking countywide furor, let’s say it’s Woodman’s of Essex. Let’s also say I’m right about this, and that as an outsider and fried-clam greenhorn, I’m qualified to render dispassionate judgment in the matter. I’ll concede, however, that on a good day, any number of places, such as the Clam Box of Ipswich and The Lobster Pool in Rockport, can prove me dead wrong.
CLAM BOX OF IPSWICH 246 High St, Ipswich 978-356-9707 www.ipswichma.com/clambox (Call for hours)
WOODMAN’S OF ESSEX 121 Main St, Essex 978-768-6057 www.woodmans.com (Open 7 days/week during summer)
JT FARNHAM’S 88 Eastern Ave, Essex 978-768-6643 (Open 7 days/week during summer)
THE LOBSTER POOL 329 Granite St, Rockport 978-546-7808 www.lobsterpoolrestaurant.com (closed Mon-Wed)
CAPTAIN JOE & SONS 95 E Main St, Gloucester 978-283-1454 www.wholesalelobster.com (Open 7 days a week)