Cooking up a clambake

John Ross prepares an old-fashioned clambake based on techniques that hark back to Native American traditions.

Our shellfish waters are close to those of Rhode Island and our culinary traditions are closer to those of New England than they are to those of New York. The New England clambake is a tradition that goes back to the Native Americans before 1600.
A recipe in “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book,” 1884, says to ” … make
up a pleasant party and dig for the clams yourselves. A short thick
dress, shade hat, rubber boots … a small garden trowel, a fork, and a
basket, and you are ready. Let those who are not digging gather a large
pile of driftwood and seaweed, always to be found along the shore.
Select a dozen or more large stones, and of them make a level floor;
pile the driftwood upon them, and make a good brisk fire to heat the
stones thoroughly … Put a thin layer of seaweed on the hot stones to
keep the lower clams from burning. Rinse the clams in salt water …
and pile them over the hot stones, heaping them high in the centre.
Cover with a thick layer of seaweed, and a piece of old canvas,
blanket, carpet, or dry leaves, to keep in the steam. … When the
shells are open, the clams are done. … At a genuine Rhode Island clam
bake, blue-fish, lobsters, crabs, sweet potatoes, and ears of corn in
their gauzy husks are baked with the clams. The clam steam gives them a
delicious flavor. Brown bread is served with the clams, and watermelon
for dessert completes the feast.”

The clambake is an ancient
example of using what is at hand in a productive way. Native Americans
taught the pilgrims how to survive by eating the shellfish that were so
abundant along the East Coast. They gathered driftwood and stones to
build a primitive oven on the beach. The hot stones were covered with
wet seaweed to cushion the food and provide steam for cooking. This
recipe has survived unchanged over the years.

When I first
came to Long Island, in 1967, I was a cook in the U.S. Coast Guard and
for one year I served at a lifeboat station in Freeport. The Coast
Guard Auxiliary would often use the beach for a clambake, introducing
me to a whole new kind of cooking. Today, as our resources are more
challenged, it is not practical to cook in this way. But you can use a
char-grill or a large steamer pot to do the same thing — and capture
those unforgettable flavors and memories. Here are some updated
versions of this ancient tradition:

Foil-Wrapped Individual ClamBake

out a double layer of foil, 18 inches square. Cover this with two
layers of cheesecloth. Place a handful of rinsed rockweed (available at
the fish market) in the center and put the following on the rockweed: 1
live lobster; 12 littleneck clams; 4 small potatoes (skin on); 1 ear of
corn (silk removed but unshucked); 1 small peeled red onion; 2 ounces
smoked kielbasa; and 1 cup water. Wrap this bundle up, leaving some
room for expansion, and seal it tight.

Place on a charcoal
grill (or gas grill) about 4 inches from the coals and cover. Cook for
45 minutes at low heat and remove. Serve with melted butter and lemon

Clambake in a Roasting Pan or Brazier

Find a
square or round low-sided pan that will fit in your char-grill with
room for the cover. Place rinsed rockweed in the bottom of the pan
along with 2 cups water. Cut up one whole chicken into 8 pieces and
wrap individually in cheesecloth. Place on top of the seaweed with 8
unpeeled red potatoes.

Put the pan on the grill over hot
coals, with about 4 inches between the coals and the pan. Cover the pan
and cook for 20 minutes before adding 4 live lobsters and 4 peeled red
onions. Cook another 15 minutes and add 2 dozen clams and 8 ears of
corn (silk removed, unshucked). Place more rinsed seaweed on top and
add a little more water to prevent drying. Cover and cook until the
lobsters turn red, about 30 minutes.

Clambake in a Steamer Pot

a quart of water in the bottom of a large steamer pot or stockpot with
a perforated rack in the bottom. Place the pot on a char-grill or other
heat source. Cover the bottom with rinsed rockweed. Wrap 4 potatoes in
foil and place on the seaweed along with 4 whole peeled onions. Cover
and cook for 20 minutes and add 4 live lobsters. Continue to cook for
15 minutes.

Make 4 bundles of littleneck clams by wrapping
them in cheesecloth and tying them with string. Add to the pot some
more rockweed and the clams along with 4 ears of unshucked corn. Cover
and cook until lobster turns red and clams open. Serve with melted
butter and lemons.

Note: Cooking over charcoal in a single
container provides delicious aromas and a wonderful ambiance, but it’s
not ideal from a chef’s perspective. You can’t control the temperature
or the cooking time for each item. The results can be delicious, but
also result in some things being overcooked and others not cooked
enough. I’m sure the pilgrims encountered the same problems. Enjoy!

Oh beau-ti-ful, crus-ta-ceous life
A-bid-ing in your muck
Through what a bi-valve knows of strife
We wish you e-very luckkkkkk

Tho’ sed-i-ment, and kinds of silt
May blanket o’er your reign
Sow seeds of roe and mind your milt
Peee-ple your wet domainnnnnnnnn

Behind your bulging azure eyes
Through your breathy mollusk sighs
A clammy ethos mild and meek
Your shell is strong but mind is weak.

For when there are two halves of you
Whether in chowder or island stew
Seabird slurp or otter bang
The end is self-same, yin or yang.

Excerpts from “Anthem for the Official Rhode Island State Shellfish”

by Matthew Farrell

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the
North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail:
[email protected].