Who doesn’t love August, that last great, sultry stretch of summer? It’s a time for out-of-office messages, flip-flops, and heading for the nearest, coolest body of water.
It’s also the perfect time for one of our very favorite traditions, the classic New England Clambake. Could you easily cook up a little coastal fare in your kitchen? Certainly. But what’s the fun in that? A proper clambake is as much an event as it is a meal, a chance to bring friends and family together for one all-day beach bash, culminating in a feast of epic proportions. If you like your seafood pre-cooked, pre-cracked, and served on white tablecloths, look elsewhere. If you don’t mind putting in a little work for your supper, or picking clean a gloriously cooked lobster with a little sand underfoot while waves lap in the background, then continue on, dear reader. The Clambake is for you.
Though typically associated with early (and often very hungry) New England colonists, the clambake actually goes back much further than that, with Native Americans using the technique to prepare large seasonal feasts for thousands of years. So a New England tradition, yes, but one that was adopted rather than invented by the early colonists (in fact if you poke around some of New England’s beaches you can still find cooking pits that were used by the region’s earliest inhabitants).
Though time-consuming, the clambake relies upon a simple technique: use the available materials at hand — sand, rocks, seaweed — along with a good sized fire, to steam food for the better part of an afternoon. When it comes to ingredients, regional variations abound, though corn, potatoes, and shellfish are almost always present. The most important thing is to do a little planning and procurement ahead of time, and to make sure that you’ve got enough hands at the ready to get things started early.
What You’ll Need
Mesh bags (optional)
There is great flexibility in what ingredients you choose to use, as well as how many guests you’ll be feeding. That said, the following items are fairly typical clambake components.
Soft shell clams (steamers)
Fingerling or small potatoes
Chouriço or Linguiça sausage
Seaweed (Rockweed ideally)
How to do it
Find a Beach
Finding a good clear spot of beach is the first order of business, one where you have permission (or a permit) to build a fire. For a moderately good sized clambake a pit of about 2-3 feet in depth works best, and roughly 3 x 5 feet in size. Bring a proper shovel or two, along with a heavy-duty rake.
In order to have reasonably even heat for the duration of the clambake, you’ll need some good grapefruit-sized rocks to line the bottom of your pit. If rocks aren’t ready available you can use metal firebricks, or, if you want to earn extra style points, cannonballs (if things get tense you can also use them to fend off any clambake freeloaders).
Build a Bonfire
No secret here, except that good, dry hardwood works best in getting your fire sufficiently hot (driftwood, though picturesque, tends to work poorly for a fire of this size). Build your fire directly on top of your pit so that as it burns, it covers the rocks with a healthy layer of hot coals. A good 3 or 4 hours of a steadily-fed fire will usually do the trick. Spreading the coals around occasionally with your rake will help ensure good coverage.
Bring on the Seaweed
With the rocks sufficiently hot, place a 2 inch layer of seaweed on top of them. Rockweed is the most common to use in the Northeast but almost any seaweed will do in a pinch. Make sure the seaweed has been recently soaked in seawater so that you have enough steam for cooking (it is the steam which does the cooking, rather than direct heat from the rocks).
Layer in the ingredients
The trick to pulling off a good clambake is to strategically layer in your ingredients, with faster-cooking items on top, slower-cooking items on the bottom, and additional layers of seaweed in between. For example: after you’ve applied your bottom layer of seaweed, first in are typically potatoes and onions. Then a layer of seaweed. Next in are sausages. Another layer of seaweed. Then clams, mussels, corn, etc., with seaweed in between each one. Last in are typically lobsters which don’t require a lengthy cooking time. Last but not least, putting few eggs on top will help tell you when it’s done (they should be hardboiled at finish). Pro-tip: if you are worried about having to dig around to find items at the end, putting them in mesh bags is often helpful.
Cover & Wait
Cooking this way requires a bit more patience — a clambake will usually take about 4 hours, give or take — but the trick lies in ensuring a steady supply of steam. One good approach is to use a tide-soaked tarpaulin to cover it, which will help keep that steam from dissipating. And with your eggs on top, you’ll have a good method for knowing when it’s time to eat. With the hard work over, it’s the perfect time to grab a beer, go for a swim, or play a game or two of volleyball. One thing's for sure: you’ll want to work up a good appetite.
Alternatives & Notes:
Want to clambake but don’t have a beach at hand? Never fear - there are a few options that may fit the bill, provided that you’re willing to get a little creative.
First, there’s the so-called “stove-top” clambake. It does lack a certain panache, but it’ll work if you’re in a bind and strapped for outdoor space. A better option, and easily doable in your backyard, is the Clambake on the Grill. Not only does it work well but also puts you outdoors where you really belong on a hot summer weekend. Here are a few links for non-beach options.
I ndoor Clambake:
Lastly, if you want to see how the professionals do it, then make your way to the Allen’s Neck Meeting House in Dartmouth Massachusetts, where this Quaker group has been putting on a clambake for the past 125 years. Profiled in a book on the topic — Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition — that kind of provenance just can’t be beat. For the curious, here is a little background reading on this long-held local tradition: