Boston Globe

Clambake

- The Boston Globe

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Summer in New England sounds a Siren's call: it's clambake season. Earth, fire and water transform a basic seafood dinner into an elemental ritual rich with history. Somehow, out of the blue, my husband is entranced by the romance of it all and decides that, despite the fact that he doesn't eat clams, the time has come for us to have a clambake by the sea. It may be hard to believe, but though we've been living in Boston a combined total of 40 years, neither of us has ever been to one. Turns out none of my friends have, either: one pal was invited to a bake at the Kennedy compound once, but didn't go; another was going to have a clambake this past Mother's Day, but then, suspiciously, didn't. Is it all a big lie? Is the New England clambake merely a myth?

No, clambakes are definitely real, and they definitely feature local delicacies like lobster, clams and corn. But these days they're mostly catered, and they're not always held on, or even near, the beach. Steve Woodman, of Woodman's of Essex, says most of the 900 clambakes they cater each year are held in backyards or at companies. You can have clambakes at a rented Tuscan villa,  Georgian mansion, or at a faux French chateau. A clambake cooked on a gas grill in front of a fake chateau?  I don't think so. Our very first bake needs to be steamed in a sand pit by the ocean, replete with the sound of gulls and the smell of the sea.

Inspired, I start making calls to coastal cities throughout Massachusetts in search of locations. One site staff member says encouragingly, "Oh, you want to cook food in the sand by the water?"

"Yeah, yeah, thats it exactly!"

"Not gonna happen," she says, dashing my hopes. "Unless --"

"Yes??"

" -- you know someone wholl let you use their private beach."

Darn. Tourism officials from all over the state call me back advising me to call a caterer or find someone with a private beach; otherwise, they warn, my clambake is dead in the water (so to speak). The naysayers start to get to me.

Then along comes Harriette Siegel of the Marblehead Recreation Department to the rescue. She tells me I can have a clambake on Marblehead's Devereaux Beach. Captain Rick Bartlett of the Marblehead Fire Department writes out a cook fire permit while we're on the phone. "Just expect 18 firefighters to show up," he teases. Hallelujah and pass the corn. Now I'm feeling cocky. This clambake thing, which was threatening to turn into a fiasco, is moving forward efficiently. OK, the locale is set. So how, exactly, does one have a clambake on the beach?

Roger Berkowitz's video,  "A New England Clambake" (WGBH, 1994), has the answers, and they're not encouraging. Who knew that a clambake takes a whole day to cook, never mind the advance research and prep work? What is rockweed, anyway, and what if there's none on the beach? How long does it take to dig a four-by-four sand pit? And where will I find enough dry rocks to line the bottom? Then I remember that while Steve Woodman has been in the clambake business his whole life, he's never actually done an old-fashioned bake by the sea. Insomnia sets in.

One week before the big day we head out to Marblehead on a scouting mission. Thankfully, we find plenty of both rocks and rockweed on the beach. (Unlike seaweed, rockweed is lined with saline-filled sacs ready to burst in the heat of our bake, imbuing our food with all sorts of oceanic goodness.) Problem is, the rockweed has little flies buzzing all over it, and it's strewn with unsavory bits of plastic and tin cans. The rocks are fine, but the city girl in me desperately wants to find sanitized rockweed for the big day. My husband says no.

Looking for some free advice, I call Rich Vellante, executive chef and vice president of food operations at Legal Sea Foods. He is extremely helpful, telling me to par-boil the potatoes beforehand and wet the ashes down well after the bake. Then he says ominously, "[A clambake] is difficult," adding, "You gotta really heat up those rocks," and, "You gotta have enough rocks," and, "Those rocks have really gotta be hot." This conversation isn't that comforting. What if my rocks arent hot enough? Vellante just laughs, then says, "Remember, people used to do this out of necessity."

Actually, according to Kathy Neustadt, author of "Clambake: A History & Celebration of an American Tradition" (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), the origins of clambaking are lost in the misty realms of the prehistoric past. In other words, no one knows for certain when this intricate dining ritual was born, and whether it was just a convenient way to have a big feed for a lot of people or whether it meant something more. Still, most people believe indigenous Americans came up with the method as long as four thousand years ago. Neustadt writes that as she watched her very first bake, she felt the tears welling in her eyes. I, too, feel a bit teary as my first bake approaches, though not from reverence. Vellante's admonitions about hot rocks still ring in my ears. Like it or not, though, the bake must go on.

The only possible impediment is the weather. Five days before C-day, the forecast calls for a cloudy day with a chance of showers. Three days to go and it's morphed into chance of showers near 100%. And the day before, we're looking at a soaking rain, heavy at times, with tidal flooding possible. I can take a hint. Fortunately, the pessimist in me had booked another date (which Marblehead Rec. usually won't do, but Harriette had taken pity on me). It's hard, but we have to go on with our pre-clambake lives for two more weeks.

Time creeps, but soon enough there are only a few more days to go and this time the forecast calls for a partly sunny day. That'll do. That's when the flurry of preparations begins in earnest. Twenty-four hours pre-bake finds us picking through corn and potatoes at Fresh Pond Bread & Circus, where Mike Irish of the Seafood Department advises us to pour a bottle of beer over the top of the pit before covering it. Sensing both my interest and my skepticism -- in a month of research I haven't heard anything about beer -- he offers up his clambake cred: He's from Maine. Good enough -- add beer to the shopping list.

We load the car the night before; it looks and feels like we're going away for a week. This time, though, unlike two weeks earlier, I'm feeling loose. So, the rockweed's a little dirty. Maybe it's clean dirt, like my father used to say. Seems that a little weather anxiety has done wonders for my attitude. For a couple of hours, anyway. Then mild nausea kicks back in. I forget -- how do you clean clams? My husband and I spend Saturday night, which happens to be our 11th anniversary, eating leftovers and watching Berkowitz's video one more time. Afterwards, I pull out the Joy of Cooking and look up clams.

Finally the big day arrives -- well, the second big day arrives, and at quarter to eight in the morning on Father's Day we head out to pick up our seafood and drive up to Marblehead. My husband has come to think of himself as the bake master, despite the fact that this is an honorific earned only after years of apprenticeship and he's never even been to a fake clambake on a lawn. He's saying things like, "I've got this in the bag. It's gonna go like clockwork." But if his self-deception means he's ready to dig in -- literally -- to the day's work, Im all for it. You go, honey.

Nerves start running a little higher on the way to the beach; my husband, so cavalier merely an hour before, wonders aloud how long it takes to dig a three-foot deep pit in the sand when you don't have a crew of helpers and time-lapse photography on your side. But by 10 a.m., the fire's going. We're right on schedule. And by 10:01, sand is falling in on the logs, threatening to put out the fire. That's when my hubby says, "This is the stressful part, huh?" Welcome to my world, love.

We're back on track as the fire builds to a roar; unfortunately, it's so cold out I need to huddle by it for warmth. Our friends arrive at 10:30, and by noon the bake master is scooping ashes into a bucket. By 12:08 the food's in the pit, and at 12:10 I wonder if its supposed to smell like that or not. At 12:15 my friend Robin comes downwind where I'm sitting and agrees it smells like melting plastic; at 12:16 my husband wonders what we should do. We decide to do nothing. The die has been cast. 12:23: shivering from cold when the rain starts.

Thankfully, by 12:35, the sun's out again, and by a quarter to one my man has that verbal swagger back: "Everything's going swimmingly," he says confidently. Food's cookin, sun's shinin', life is good. One-thirty rolls around, and it's time to eat! The guys peel back the tarp, my hubby grabs a corn, takes a big bite -- and throws it back down. Raw. Raw? They pull the tarp back over the food and it's back to the waiting game. Starving, I grab a bagel from my friend's cooler. Half an hour later we have the second unveiling. As Berkowitz suggests in his video, we've thrown an onion on top of the whole shebang. When the onion's cooked, your clambake is done.

"This onion's hard as a rock," our friend Jeff reports. Well, that's a shame, because an hour from now, regardless of the state of the food, we have to be out of here -- another party's arriving. I hope for their sake it's not a clambake. So Jeff and my husband pull the food out of the pit, plate it up, and dish it out. Jeff, looking at the clams, says, "Why do these look so -- I don't think I can eat these."

I know what he's saying. The clams are mushy and falling apart. I've never seen anything like it. Then there's the corn, which is still raw, despite having been steamed for two hours. The sausage is dry, and the potatoes taste like plastic. Jeff asks my hubby how the lobster is, and he answers, "Cooked." And that about sums it up. It all tastes vaguely weird -- rubbery, unpleasantly smoky. Robin and I look at each other, and she asks, "Is it supposed to taste like this?" Note to Mike Irish from Bread & Circus: A beer wasn't enough. Any other tips?  

"I think there was something wrong with the corn," my hubby says. It's not fun to watch a man's pride get wounded, especially in front of friends (and a photographer). I shake my head sadly. It's not the corn, my sweet. By the time we've packed the car, he's arrived at his final word on clambakes: Never again. Cooler closed.

Still hungry, I walk over to Flynnies by the Sea, the charming snack shack next to the parking lot, and order fried clams. They've run out.

updated: 4 years ago

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