The Spanish have their Paella, the French their Bouillabaisse, but in New England, and indeed throughout America, we have the Clambake, a rich and glorious repast of Neptune’s treasures from the sea.
From Maine’s rocky coast to the sandy shores of southern California, Americans have found their way to enjoy the bounteous pleasures of the seafood feast. In the South, far from the oceans, they enjoy the Crawfish Boil, among other similarly delectable delights. In each section of the United States, and Canada too, a different variation of the traditional New England version sparkles with local flavor, history and culture. Even within New England, the fundamental selection of ingredients for this simple cooking method depends upon the local seafood.
The clambake or clam bake is traditionally held for some celebration or holiday along a coast in New England. It begins with fresh seaweed, gathered up along the shore, and medium to large round stones, or cannonballs.These radiate the heat from the fire, and provide a controlled, steady cooking temperature. To keep the seaweed fresh, you will need a container large enough to hold both the seaweed and a fair amount of sea water.
Like most other methods of steaming, a sturdy cover is needed to trap the heat and steam in order to thoroughly cook the food as it is the steam, not direct heat that actually does the cooking.. Canvas tarps or potato sacks soaked in sea water are often used for this purpose. Don’t use a plastic tarp as it will melt and poison your food.
The next step is to dig a fire pit. While some simply start a fire within the pit, others line the edges with flat stones to provide support for a metal grill on which the other stones are placed. This has the benefit of allowing heat to circulate, providing a better result.
Stones used for cooking are placed in the center of the pit and a wood fire is started, although the exact method of heating the stones varies. The fire must burn until the stones are glowing hot. Care must be taken to ensure that the fire will burn out shortly after this optimal cooking temperature is achieved. The ashes are then swept off the stones and raked between them to form an insulating bed. A layer of wet seaweed is placed over the stones, followed by traditional regional foods such as steamer clams, mussels, Quahogs, and lobsters. Often, shrimp, oysters, and other seafood may be added to the delightful compilation.
Side dishes usually include potatoes (most often new or red waxy potatoes), corn on the cob, sausages, carrots, and onions. Alternating layers of seaweed and food are piled on top and the entire mound is covered with canvas that has been drenched in sea water to seal in the heat and prevent the canvas from burning. (Some may prefer to use beer to soak the canvas, but it is unlikely to have any effect whatever on the cooked food.) The food is allowed to steam for several hours.
Since many locales outlaw building fires on beaches, and in order to accommodate the dish in homes or backyards, this dish is often prepared in a large pot. This is known as a New England Clam Boil. There are some caterers that specialize in clam bakes on the beach.
Clam bakes are more popular in Northeast Ohio than any other region of the United States outside of New England. A typical clam bake in Northeast Ohio includes a dozen clams with a half chicken, sweet potatoes, corn, and other side dishes. Seaweed is not used and the clams, chicken, and sweet potatoes are all steamed together in a large pot. The spelling “clambake” is usually preferred in this part of the country. Clambakes are popular fundraisers in late September through October.
In some parts of the country, where seafood is not found readily, one may find similar events centered around barbecue, pig roasts, or other foods. No matter what it is you’re cooking, the clam bake concept is one that always brings good, warm and comforting feelings to those who participate.
Be sure to check local laws concerning clam bakes on local beaches as open fires are often not permitted.