Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
In the Good Old Summertime
In New England summer is clambake season, that delightful time of year when you gather your friends, roll up your sleeves and pants legs, forage for seaweed, gather rocks, dig a pit, and create a communal feast of crustaceans and vegetables. (I think a few beers might be involved as well, but I’ll leave that part up to your imagination.)
Native Americans used this cooking method long before they introduced it to the Pilgrims. However, our European ancestors were not quick to jump on board the clambake bandwagon. Despite the folklore, in truth, they considered clams and shellfish “starvation food.” It was not until after the Civil War that, in search of a new cultural “American” institution, the clambake was appropriated as the symbol of reverence for the enduring spirit of our forebears. “Invented tradition” is the phrase coined by historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.
"By the end of the 19th century, the clambake had become an authentic symbol of American tradition, alongside Thanksgiving, 4th of July and apple pie. During the Gilded Age, when American’s were as obsessed with ‘authenticity’ as we are today and when leisure time became socially acceptable, clambakes offered a decent and trendy way of spending free time. They became a common part of political gatherings and appeared in art and literature as a symbol of sanctuary from a world gone awry."
— Christinia Lemieux, "The History of the Clambake," Maine-ly Lobster, July15, 2015
Supplies for an Authentic New England Clambake
Foil (for wrapping some of the food items)
Small pot for melting butter
Oven mitts or leather fire gloves
Yield: 6-8 servings (multiply for a crowd)
- 1 lobster per person
- 1 ear of corn per person
- 2 pounds new potatoes
- 6 pounds littleneck or cherrystone clams
- 1 pound butter
Instructions (Beach Version)
Prep the Pit
- First and foremost, be certain that you are allowed to dig and cook at the beach of your choice.
- Invite friends—a lot of friends. You’ll need seaweed scavengers, rock collectors, driftwood gatherers, pit diggers, food preppers, and cooks, and help with setup and cleanup.
- Dig that hole; the ideal size (from what I’ve read) is 3 feet deep and 4 to 5 feet in diameter. (That’s a lot of digging!)
- Line the bottom of that pit with large stones (6 to 8 inches around).
- Build a fire on top of the stones. Heap driftwood on top and start your fire. Let it burn for several hours. Before cooking begins you might need to supplement the burning embers with some charcoal briquettes. How will you know when the pit is hot enough? Splash a little water on the rocks. If it sizzles and evaporates instantly, you’re good to go.
- Cover the hot rocks (and charcoal, if using) with a 3-inch layer of wet seaweed.
- While the pit is being readied, someone should be assembling and prepping the food for cooking.
Prep the Food
- Scrub the clams and soak in cold salted water with 1/4 cup cornmeal so that they will expel sand and grit (this will take about 30 minutes).
- Pierce potatoes with a knife and wrap each one individually in foil
- Wrap each ear of corn with foil.
- Top everything with more seaweed and cover the seaweed with a tarp or a potato sack drenched in seawater.
- Bake your seafood for at least two hours. A good sign the food is cooked to perfection is to check the potatoes first. If they are soft, your clam bake is done
- When done, the lobsters will be red, the clams will be popped open (discard any that are not), and the potatoes will be easily pierced with a sharp knife.
Understanding the Components
Corn on the cob, clams, and potatoes—these are the basic ingredients of every clambake. I'll help you understand how to find the best of each, how to prepare them, and provide some ideas for other ingredients you might add to your bake to provide more variety.
How do you select the best corn on the cob? Here is all you need to know—no myths, superstitions or rumors:
Read More From Delishably
- Silks: First, look at the silks. There is one silk for every kernel on the cob (trust me on this). The silks should be green or a pale yellow—not brown.
- Bottom of the ear: Next, look at the bottom of the ear—where the corn was attached to the stalk. It should be pale green like the husk. If it is brown, the ear was picked too many days ago and your corn will not be sweet. Fresh corn has a ratio of 80 percent sugar and 20 percent starch. Within just three days that ratio can shift to 20 percent sugar and 80 percent starch.
- Husks: The husks should be green, not pale yellow or (worse) brown. Are there holes in the husk? If so, just walk away. Those are wormholes.
- Shuck at the store? Should you shuck before you pay the bucks? Please don’t. It’s a rude thing to do to the merchant and certainly to the next customer who is dealing with your discarded ears of corn. Pulling back the husk tells you nothing that you won’t learn from gently peeling back the top of the husk to reveal the tip of the cob of corn. If you see plump kernels and the corn has passed the other tests mentioned above, you can be assured that the entire cob is full and worthy of purchase!
- Yellow vs. white? They are all the same and I dare you to do a blind taste test. You won’t know the difference.
- Storage: And finally, storage. If you don’t cook your corn on the same day that you purchase it, store in your refrigerator with the husks and silks on.
Littlenecks, cherry stones, top necks, quahogs (pronounced coe-hog)—which one should you select for your clambake? Some people will shout "the quahog is the only authentic New England clam." Well, guess what? A quahog is just another name for "littleneck, cherrystone, or top neck." They're all clams, all quahogs, and the only difference between them is the size.
- Littlenecks are the smallest, 7 to 10 clams per pound.
- Cherrystones are the next largest (by just a tad), 6 to 10 per pound.
- Topnecks are the next and they weigh in at about 4 per pound.
- Quohogs (or what people categorize as quohogs) are the big beefy guys. They measure a whopping 2 or 3 to a pound.
So which one should you use for your clambake? Don't buy the things labeled as quohogs! They are massive; wonderful chopped or ground up for chowder, but you don't want to chew on a whole one out of the shell. Here's the key—the larger the clam, the tougher it will be. So for tender out-of-the-shell clambake clams, opt for the littleneck variety.
In the world of potatoes, there are three basic types:
- Starchy potatoes are the Russets; these are best for baking. The skins roast up crisp and the interiors turn blissfully fluffy.
- Yukon golds are in-betweens, not as starchy as the russet or waxy as the red or white. They are an all-purpose potato.
- Red or white potatoes are low in starch and, when steamed, they do not collapse as do baking potatoes. They keep their shape.
For steaming (which is what you do in a clambake) the red or white potato is your best choice.
There are other foods that can be added to your clambake. For example:
- Lobster: If you can afford it, by all means, add a lobster to the meal. The video below shows how to select the best one.
- Kielbasa: This is a Polish sausage made of ground pork or a combination of pork and beef. They are lightly smoked but full of flavor from garlic and cloves. The spicy taste of this sausage is a perfect contrast to the sweet shellfish and fresh corn.
- Garnishes: Melted butter goes with just about everything, doesn't it, and it certainly works with a meal of succulent clams, potatoes, steamed corn, and (if you're lucky) sweet lobster. Parsley adds a pretty pop of color; toss it on top. Fresh lemon will be welcome too. Slice them in half; take a few extra minutes to coax the seeds out (you'll be glad that you did).
What If You Don't Have a New England Beach?
Don't despair if (like me) you live thousands of miles from the New England coast. You can still enjoy the aroma and flavors of a traditional clambake. Here are several methods.
The cooking experts at Williams-Sonoma have put together a wonderful clambake-in-a-pot for us. When you cook your seafood bounty on the stovetop you aren't bound by what ingredients will work well in a beachfront sandpit. This recipe amps up the flavor profile with the addition of garlic, fennel bulb, thyme, and shrimp in the shell.
One of my favorite methods of cooking dinner is on a sheet pan; meat, vegetables, and potatoes are cooked together on one pan. It's a genius concept—everything cooks together at the same time (no juggling of ingredients and hoping that they all reach the finish line at the same time), fewer dishes to wash, and the meal cooks quickly, usually in 30 minutes or less.
Tiffany uses the sheet pan method to prepare a beautiful clambake without the sand.
What If You Don't Have Old Bay Seasoning?
My friends outside of the United States might not be able to find Old Bay Seasoning Mix. It's a regional treat. According to CultureTrip.com:
"Old Bay® was a blend of 18 spices invented by Gustav Brunn, a German refugee who came to Maryland in 1939. Named after a ship line on the Chesapeake Bay, the spice grew in popularity during the second half of the 20th century. In 1990, McCormick & Company bought the spice, at which time they didn’t have any plans to distribute it outside Maryland. Today, the company still manufactures it north of Baltimore, and does distribute it to a much wider area. The recipe is the same as it was over 75 years ago."
Don't despair. I have a recipe for a reasonable (and almost foolproof) substitute.
Carb Diva's Old Bay Seasoning Mix
- 1 tablespoon ground bay leaves (use a spice grinder to process whole bay leaves to a powder)
- 2 teaspoons celery salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon mace
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/8 teaspoon allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon ginger
© 2021 Linda Lum