Have you ever eaten seafood, fresh from the ocean, right on the beach where it was caught? Cooked it with wood and seaweed scavenged from nearby, in a hole you dug in the sand with your family, friends, or neighbors? I might be oversimplifying it, but if you haven’t attended a clambake like this, you’re missing out on one of the most unique outdoor dining experiences in the U.S.
The New England clambake can make you feel like a kid again, connecting you with nature and the people you love in a beautiful setting. It’s a way to enjoy food as ritual, community, and sustenance, all in one. But its history, based on myth and nation-building, might surprise you.
Invented Traditions on the Half Shell
According to Kathy Neustadt, author of “Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition,” the clambake originated right after the American Revolution. In the 1770s, an old colony club in Plymouth, Mass. began putting on a Forefathers Day feast to commemorate the English Pilgrims and the foods they were imagined to have eaten. These feasts became increasingly political, as newly minted Americans tried to define their culture as an independent nation. By the end of the 18th century, the name of the event had changed to “The Feast of Shells,” which is a nod to the religious pilgrims who follow the Road to Santiago, as symbolized by scallop shells.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and increased modes of transportation in the 1800s, more people had time for tourism and leisure activities, such as picnics and barbecues. As a result, the clambake became a popular pastime. “It was a great way to feed a lot of people,” says Neustadt, “ and could be tied to our national history and culture.” But it wasn’t just for small gatherings with family anymore. In fact, on July 4, 1840, then-presidential candidate William Henry Harrison threw a huge clambake in Rhode Island for approximately 10,000 people to garner votes.
Much like Thanksgiving, the lore around the origin of the clambake was often romanticized by including stories of native peoples teaching the Pilgrims how to collect and cook shellfish and share in the bounty of the New World. In reality, while there is evidence that local tribes in New England and New York did forage for clams and roast them for preservation in large numbers, there was no ritual celebration connected to that activity. Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, authors of “America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking,” also point out that the Pilgrims associated eating clams with scarcity and being lower-class. While they were necessary food, at times, for survival, clams were also fed to livestock and used as bait for catching bigger and better fish, such as cod and haddock.
Related Video: How to Get Your Clams Squeaky Clean
How to Do a Proper Bake
By the late 19th century, enterprising entrepreneurs were catering clambakes all along the East Coast. Over a century later, these types of events are still big business. There are hundreds of restaurants and caterers in the Northeast where you can eat a clambake meal without having to do all the work. But if you want to do a proper bake, says Neustadt, you’ll need to follow these basic instructions:
First, dig a hole. Then, gather some wood and use it to build a fire in the hole. Once it’s good and hot, add some rocks, either right on top or around the edges. Let the fire burn down to glowing embers and get those rocks heated up (it may take a few hours). Then, layer some seaweed—preferably rockweed, with those little air sacs you loved to pop as a kid—on top of the hot rocks and start adding in your food. The clams go on the bottom so that, when they open up, their briny juices don’t drip all over everything else. Next, put in whatever you’d like: potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, sausage, maybe some other type of fish or even lobster (if you’re in Maine).
Top it all off with another layer of seaweed, seal the hole with a wooden board and cover it up with sand. Let everything steam for at least an hour. Wipe away the sand, remove the wooden board and the top layer of seaweed, and there you have it; your clambake is ready to divvy up and enjoy.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see put together,” says Michelle Mulford, co-founder of Uncommon Feasts, a catering company based in Brookline, Mass. that has put on several clambakes for clients on mid-coast Maine beaches. “It’s very elemental. You can collect the ingredients locally, so it’s the quintessential farm-to-table experience. It’s a fun project. But it’s very labor intensive.”
Neustadt, who has been to many clambakes over the years as part of her research and for her own enjoyment, agrees. “I like to think that this is a quintessential Yankee activity…it requires a whole lot of people working together,” she says. “I think everybody ought to do it. It’s a part of my life.”
“Ironically,” she adds, “I don’t eat clams, I’m allergic to them. I eat everything else.” She laughs. “But it doesn’t always end up being about eating it.”
Pro Tip: If you happen to be on the New England coast in August, check the local paper for clambake event listings, which are often hosted by fire stations, grange halls and churches.
Seafood Feasts From Elsewhere
Header image courtesy of Le Creme de la Crumb