The Clambake – Summer’s Movable Feast

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One of my cherished  childhood memories is of the annual clambake held by a group of which my mother was secretary. The bustle of the gathering crowd. The smell of seaweed. The steam wafting through the air. The dangerously heavy paper  plates as we’d sit down to indulge in the feast. Most who grew up on the New England coast share such memories, since the clambake is a long – standing New England custom. Though the clambake began on the beach, it has also moved into back yards and kitchens – not to mention across the country5,6!

Origins on the Beach

 Few realize that our New England shores have been hosting clambakes for thousands of years. Beginning approximately two thousand years ago, tribes of Native Americans in the area1 such as the Wabanaki and Wampanoag4 cooked lobsters and clams in holes made in beach sand. The pits were needed since Native Americans  didn’t  have the huge pots that otherwise would have been necessary1.

It is possible that the pilgrims learned how to prepare clambakes from Native Americans.

One tribe near Bar Harbor called a portion of its coastline their language’s term for “clambake place” – “Ah-bays’auk”1. There are places on the coast of Rhode Island where one can still see the remains of Native American clambake sites. It is believed by some that, at similar sites in Massachusetts, the pilgrims learned the art of the  clambake from native Americans1.  Pilgrims’ records do mention that they ate clams, and  it is possible that they watched Native American clambakes –  but there is no specific record of the pilgrims’ having learned the clambake practice from the Native Americans1.

An eighteenth century event called Forefathers’ day (the “Feast of Shells1“) in Plymouth made the clambake into a social affair4. This celebration was begun in memory of the arrival of the pilgrims in what would become America. Clams were served each Forefathers’ Day, along with other foods likely gleaned from Native American cooking by the pilgrims1.

By the late nineteenth century the clambake was widely known as a traditional American meal. Leisure time was no longer  frowned upon if it was used in a meaningful way, and so clambakes made a good recreational persuit1. Also bolstering the fame of the clambake was the fact that trains made it easier for people to get to the coast4.

 

A late nineteenth century painting of a clambake by artist Winslow Homer.

 

Clambakes were now visible in literature and even art1. By this time the steps to a clambake were the same as those used in traditional clambakes today4.

The foods served at a clambake on the beach are cooked via heated rocks that line a pit in which the food is cooked along with seaweed. Clambake foods traditionally include clams, corn, mussels, lobster, certain meats, and potatoes4.

Some cooks at clambakes use a raw egg as a timer to let them know when the food in the pit is done. When the food is added, a raw egg is dropped in. The lobster is ready to eat when the yolk of the egg becomes fully cooked.  When all of the needed components are present, a tarp that has been wetted is put atop the clambake pit and acts as a lid. The food is ready in around ninety minutes4.

One important note – if you plan to hold a clambake on a beach, first make sure that clambakes are both legal and allowed on your beach of choice10.

To learn in detail how to hold a traditional clambake, take a look at “How to Prepare A Classic New England Clambake” – a post done for this blog several years ago.

The Move into Your Home

Though the conventional clambake is still popular, many new variations have arisen. Several of these modified clambakes have been developed to take the hard work out of the equation and to make the recipes doable at home. In some recipes the food can be cooked in sizable pots, for example, rather than the traditional hand – dug pit. Propane burners can provide the heat for cooking rather than a fire2. In another alternative to the beach pit clambake, the “clam boil (Bon Apétit, 2011)”, the foods are boiled together in the pot so that their flavors blend7. One blog’s recipe modifies a typical clambake meant for a crowd to serve one family9.  A clambake technique described in a New York Times Magazine article keeps the food free of debris. This method still uses the pit with fire, but rather than piling the foods in with seaweed they are divided amongst four wooden boxes with wire for their bottom faces. These boxes are then put atop the embers from the fire for heating. A tarp is not used10.

This new take on the clambake, originated by Wayne and Lynne Rogers of Connecticut, also gets creative with the foods that are cooked in the boxes. Shrimp and scallops are skewered together. Stone crab claws, bay scallops, and shrimp with herbs and butter are wrapped in cabbage. Bluefish is cooked coated in basil leaves and striped bass in lovage leaves. Poached leeks and scallions are also part of the exhibition. Salads are prepared separately to be served alongside the cooked items10.

Chorizo, a spicy sausage and now a possible clambake ingredient.

Clambakes held today show off a wide array of new culinary ideas on and off the beach. It has been said that the only ingredient common to all clambakes now is the steamed clams themselves!  Clambake chefs have become more imaginative in the types of sausage and/ or  meats that they use2. This is illustrated by a recipe from Martha Stuart Living (meant to be cooked on a kitchen stove) that utilizes hot dried chorizo. Other ingredients in this innovative version of the clambake are shrimp, garlic, and red potatoes8.  A certain “clam boil (Bon Apétit, 2011)” recipe uses all of the usual foods but offers them alongside a garlic – herb butter seasoned with oregano and basil for a new splash of flavor7. At some clambakes the clams can also be steamed in in surprising ingredients such as wine4.

How did our Coastal New England tradition resurface in Ohio?

The Spread Across America

Though often preceded by “New England”, the clambake’s popularity has spread far beyond the Northeast. Two  additional places where clambakes are now popular are Ohio and California2. One example of a clambake California style is held on the beach at sunset . This event is described as “our take on the great East Coast classic(San Diego, 2018)” and involves beach games, entertainers, beer, and wine6.  Ohio clambakes are particularly widespread around Cleveland. These gatherings dish up sweet potatoes, grilled chicken, corn, and broth alongside the clams, and would seem to be popular slightly later in the year than those of New England5. While it stands to reason that the clambake would flourish in Pacific – Coast California with its abundance of seafood and beaches, the Ohio version is a little more mysterious. Dan Scharf, writer for the magazine edible CLEVELAND, reports that he tried to plumb this mystery. Though Scharf was unable to find a definite answer to why Ohio loves the clambake, he did come upon some theories. One of these is that around the beginning of the nineteenth century people from New England moved west to Ohio to avoid damaging effects of the Revolutionary War – and took their beloved clambake with them5.

At Atlantic Seafood, we have our own take on the classic New England clambake that delivers the relished flavors you remember with virtually no work. The  Lobster Bake in a Can is a pot full of clams, fingerling potatoes, corn on the cob, and lobster accompanied by butter and seasonings. You pick up the pot and its accessories from us and take it home (we just need it back when you’re done). Add three cups of water, heat the pot on a grill or high heat stove for twenty five minutes, and have a clambake there at your fingertips! Tie on the complimentary bibs with your loved ones and enjoy.

 

Works Cited

1. Lemieux, Christina. “THE HISTORY OF THE CLAMBAKE”.
MAINE-LY LOBSTER Coastal Maine Food and Travel Blog, 15 July 2015, www.maine-lylobster.com/2015/07/the-history-of-the- clambake.html.

2. Schneider, Suzannah. “History of the New England Clambake.”
MARCUS SAMUELSSON, 21 July 2014, marcussamuelsson.com/posts/food-stories-2/history-of-the-new-england-clambake.

3.”Thanksgiving Lobster Clambake History”.
LOBSTERS ONLINE, www.lobsters-online.com/catalog/clambakehistory.html.
Retrieved 26 July 2018.

4. Traverso, Amy. “Wood – Fired New England Clambake Spots 10 Favorites”.
New England Today Travel, 28 Dec. 2017, newengland.com/today/travel/new-england/where-to-find-a-live-fire-new-england-clambake/.

5. Scharf, Dan. “How Cleveland Came to Claim the Clambake”.
edible CLEVELAND, 2014, newengland.com/today/travel/new-england/where-to-find-a-live-fire-new-england-clambake/.
Retrieved 26 July 2018.

6. “California Clambake”.
San Diego, www.sandiego.org/members/hotels-resorts/hotel-del-coronado/events/california-clambake-2.aspx.
Retrieved 27 July 2018.

7. “Easy Summer Clambake”.
Bon Apetit, Aug. 2011, www.bonappetit.com/recipe/one-pot-clambake.
Retrieved 28 July 2018.

8. “Stove – Top Clambake”.
MARTHA STUART.com, July 2010, www.marthastewart.com/256175/stove-top-clambake.
Retrieved 28 July 2018.

9. Davis, Rebecca. “Kitchen Clambake”.
ME & THE MOOSE, 6 June 2018, www.meandthemoose.com/blog/2018/6/6/kitchen-clambake.

10. Miller, Bryan. “A DIFFERENT CLAMBAKE”.
The New York Times Magazine, 1 May 1983, www.nytimes.com/1983/05/01/magazine/a-different-clambake.html.

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