It's the New England tradition that few of us have truly experienced: the iconic seaside clambake with the rockweed and rock-lined pit and great weather and nary a "no seeum" to be seen. Most clambakes are not like this at all, but rather professionally catered, steamed over gas and served at company picnics or even indoors. This save a great deal of time and mess but the expense is beyond most household budgets. The authentic article requires a few things that few of us have, including a private beach and a ready source of rockweed. Even if you are fortunate enough to have access to these two indispensable items - as we have at Windrock - the subtle art of the bake master may not be part of your family tradition. In any event it is a heck of an undertaking.
I have attended two clambakes at Windrock - one catered at my cousin's wedding in 1993 and one supervised by my Uncle Rob at a family gathering in 2000. I appear to be on a seven year cycle with these things, and when my two oldest friends from high school made plans to visit while I was at the shore, I figured I had enough exposure to the art of the clambake to attempt one on my own.
The idea behind this ancient form of communal cooking is to bake the feast in the steam generated by hot rocks and rockweed. I dug my 3' diameter pit above the high water mark on a cobble beach. Getting to the right depth and finding the right stones to line the pit took about an hour. I did this step several days in advance of the bake, partly out of anticipation and partly to see whether I had truly placed it well above high tide as it would be in full flood when the fire was lit.
There is no good tidal flat nearby for steamers but we have an abundance of the hard shelled quahog and Emily and Elias helped me forage 35 of these to bake and stuff. Wrapped in aluminum foil, these went into the bake with the other ingredients and came out moist and savory. Also on the menu were seven pounds of steamers ($3.50/lb), 12 ears of sweet corn ($3.98), 4 pounds new potatoes ($5.00), and five 1.5 pound lobsters $10.99/lb). We had purple cabbage slaw straight from the garden as well as mixed salad greens, with hot dogs for the kids and homemade blueberry pie for dessert. It promised to be a spectacular feast, if in fact I could pull it off.
The rockweed came from the breakwater lying about 50 yards offshore. The children and I wadded out as the tide started to flow and collected a 20 gallon bucket full that turned out to be just enough for a a 3' pit. At about 2:15 we lit the fire using ceder and oak and tinder-dry laths from an old horsehair plaster wall that was replaced with new sheetrock several years ago. We let this burn for three hours to get the rocks as hot as possible, but here I faced my first technical challenge. Most of the guides to clambakes tell you to remove all embers before starting to lay down the bake, but our pit had a deep bed of coals when we were ready to get cooking. I ended up shoveling them out and drenching them in water, but in retrospect I would recommend an old metal bucket to contain them rather than making all those trips with hot cinders on my shovel. Unless you are into fire walking.
Now came a layer of rockweed and the pit started to sizzle and spit. Research determined a six inch layer was recommended, but for a small pit like mine I might have done better with a little less: perhaps 4 inches. I would also have added the potatoes first, as they seem to take the longest to cook. Instead, I went with clams and lobsters, followed by unshucked corn, quahogs and potatoes. I have found it unnecessary to remove the silk or any outer layers from corn when I roast it, and this proved also to be the case when steamed in my clambake. We put another light layer of rockweed over the food and my old waxed canvas tarp provided a cover, weighted down with leftover wood. This left us an hour before all would be done to get the rest of the food and utensils down to the beach and for guests to engage in a bit of boating after bluefish before dinner.
The results were very fine indeed. Clams a bit too done, potatoes underdone, but the lobsters, corn and quahogs were outstanding. No bugs except sand fleas - and these fried like tiny shrimp when they settled on the hot tarp. We overturned a pound of melted butter in the process of removing the feast from the bake but there were no other mishaps. I am told the pie was something truly special, and can only reveal that I winged it and used both lemon and vanilla to good effect. Mostly, it was a joy to offer good friends a New England clambake as we have all imagined it and largely living up to expectations. I may not feel the need to attempt another until 2014, but I've got experience under my belt now and a few improvements in mind for next time. In the meanwhile, I've been thinking about a luau...