Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Taste of the Seacoast takes you behind the scenes and reveals the secrets of a real down-home Yankee clambake. We don’t take our clams lightly around here. Seasoned food writer Crystal Ward Kent gets it right—right down to the seaweed.
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Of all New England’s wonderful cuisine, the clambake best sums up the essence of the region. It blends the fruits of the sea with the bounty of the harvest, and its customary outdoor setting celebrates the beauty of the region’s coast.
Traditionally, a clambake consists of freshly dug clams ("steamers"), mussels, roasted corn on the cob, baked potatoes, roasted onions, lobsters served with melted butter, and, for dessert (if there is room), blueberry pie or watermelon. Old-time Mainers would gather at the beach, dig a pit in the sand, line it with stones, then build a large wood fire to heat the stones. Once the stones were warm, they’d add potatoes, onions, corn, and clams, sometimes even sausages or hot dogs, cover it all with seaweed and a wet tarp and steam until everything was cooked through. Another popular variation is boiling everything in a huge kettle or washtub over the fire.
Jean Kerr, editor of Taste and a twenty-five-year veteran of many clambakes, offers a simpler method, which is highlighted here (to read her tips in full, check out her cookbook Mystic Seafood: Great Recipes, History, and Seafaring Lore from Mystic Seaport). First step, grab some basic tools: a clean metal garbage can, pot holders, metal serving tongs, and a team of helpers for prepping food, fetching, and carrying.
With her team and tools in order, Jean’s family digs a fire pit one foot deep and three feet across, and then lines it with big, flat rocks. These keep the moisture out and give the trash can a firm base to sit on. Next, they build a wood fire. The fire must be fairly substantial so it will last several hours and boil seawater, which has a higher boiling point due to its salt content. Once the fire is under way, helpers are dispatched to gather rockweed from tide pools and other rocky parts of the beach. Jean notes that you can distinguish rockweed from other seaweed by its "little bubbles or poppers." "Using the right seaweed is key, as other varieties don’t react well to heat," she explains. Rinse the rockweed in seawater; since it will play a key role in cooking.
With the fire going, Jean recommends filling your trash can with 8–10 inches of seawater—be sure to get clear, unsandy water. Set the trash can on the fire, cover, and wait till the water comes to a rolling boil. Once that is attained, pile enough rockweed into the trash can to cover the bottom. Then wrap your scrubbed, but not peeled, potatoes in foil, and place them on top of the rockweed; add more rockweed to cover them. If you want to roast some onions, throw them in now. Cover the trash can and let it steam/boil for about 20 minutes.
Next, add the lobsters and cover them with rockweed. Put the lid back on the trash can and let steam for about 20 minutes. Now, it is time for the corn. When shucking the corn, remove the dark green part of the husk, but leave the soft, inner leaves. Pull these back and remove the corn silk, then rewrap the soft leaves around the corn. Toss the ears in the can and cover them with rockweed. Cook for just 15 minutes. Clams are best handled by tying them in cheesecloth bags for easy removal. Place them in the can, cover with rockweed, and steam just until the clams open, about 10 minutes. (Throw out any broken or unopened clams.) Finally, melt your butter in any old pot at the edge of the fire. Use disposable cups to divide the butter into individual servings for dipping. Allow one lobster, one potato, about a pint of clams or mussels, and one or two ears of corn per person.
Jean’s "clambake can" is not used for any other purpose, and she points out that "cooking in the washtub" is very popular in Down East Maine. Clambakes are simple affairs, with knives and forks optional. Folks usually eat seated on rocks, blankets, or beach towels. Plates are sturdy but disposable. Clambakes can be "accessorized" with any side dishes you like, from blueberry muffins to coleslaw or sliced veggies, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. The point is to savor the bounty of land and sea in the fresh salt air, with the cry of gulls and the splash of the waves for accompaniment.
Click Taste of The Seacoast 'Celebrating Seafood' For Local Clambakes and Seafood "In The Rough" locations.
TASTE OF THE SEACOAST: Celebrating Seafood