NEWPORT, R.I. – Every corner of the United States seems to boast a meal that represents the people, history and flavor of the city or region. Philadelphia has its cheese steaks. Seattle prides itself on coffee and salmon. In the Inland Northwest, it’s huckleberry anything. In western New England, the clambake reigns supreme.
Clambakes are a centuries-old method of steaming a mélange of local food – usually clams, lobster, mussels, sausage, potatoes and ears of corn – over seaweed in an outdoor setting. According to folklore, Native Americans taught English settlers the cooking method in the 17th century on the beaches of what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The tradition continues back east today, and clambakes – along with their kitchen-friendly cousin, the clam boil – are often the centerpiece of casual family gatherings, corporate parties and even upscale weddings.
The food that goes into a clambake varies slightly depending on whether you’re in Maine (where hot dogs and chicken often are included), on Cape Cod (where whole fish is often used) or Rhode Island (where Portuguese sausage such as chorizo is a must). Clam boils follow the same ingredient list – it’s the cooking method that distinguishes it from a bake.
McGrath Clambakes Inc., a 39-year-old Newport, R.I.-based catering company, has traveled as far as Miami, Delaware and Ireland to throw traditional clambakes for clients. From April through October, the company caters five to seven clambakes each week, bake master Phil Quarry says. Their largest event fed 1,200 guests – that’s 1,200 lobsters, in addition to the other food included in the meal.
On a recent Tuesday evening overlooking a sailboat-filled harbor in Newport, McGrath Clambakes held a clambake for a corporate party of about 60 attendees. At 4 p.m., Quarry, fellow bake master Myles Murray and apprentice Shaughn Coyne lighted a stack of wooden pallets underneath a pile of rocks. An hour later, after the flames extinguished, they dumped a canoe-load of “rockweed” on top of the hot rocks.
Rockweed, which is usually collected from beaches on the morning of a clambake, is a type of seaweed with small bulbs in it that hold pockets of salt water. The pockets burst as they heat up, adding to the food’s eventual flavor, Quarry says. Other types of seaweed can be used, but the end result might not taste as good, the bake masters say.
“In a clambake, you get all the flavor from the seaweed,” Quarry says.
As soon as the seaweed hit the hot rocks at the party in Newport, the messy heap began popping and steaming, resembling a grumpy, hairy monster you might find in a Halloween haunted house.
The bake masters quickly unloaded metal crates from refrigerated trucks and placed them atop the seaweed. In all, the crates contained 60 live lobsters, half a bushel of steamer clams, half a bushel of mussels, 15 pounds of chorizo sausage and dozens of potatoes and ears of corn.
The next step was to cover the hot heap of food with 12 wet sheets and canvases, then stomp on top of the fabric in a circle around the cooking pit to seal the steam inside.
Aside from an occasional hosing down by Coyne, the caterers ignored the giant white mound – which an 1882 “New York Times” article referred to as “the grand funeral pile” – for the next two hours. (The author of that piece set out to uncover the appeal of the New England clambake, which New Yorkers, even those accustomed to eating in “third-rate restaurants” considered dirty and unappealing at the time.)
At 7 p.m., partygoers gathered around as the bake masters peeled off the sheets and unveiled their dinner. The $90-per-plate party came with a few side dishes, a small cup of melted butter for dipping and an open bar.
Traditional clambakes such as the ones catered by McGrath Clambakes are hard to pull off if you don’t live near the ocean, but Inland Northwesterners can come close to replicating the flavors by hosting a grill-top clambake or stovetop clam boil, which is boiled in a large pot rather than steamed over hot rocks. Besides being easier to accomplish, clam boils have another advantage over clambakes: The broth created in the pot makes a delicious dunking pool for slices of crusty bread.
The key to an expertly cooked clam boil is to add the ingredients at precisely the right time and in the right order so as not to overcook the shellfish or undercook the potatoes, says Mike Offield, owner of Williams Seafood Market and Wines in Spokane Valley. He advises putting any sausages in the bottom of the pot, closest to the heat, followed by vegetables and topped with shellfish.
Offield’s customers sometimes come to him trying to replicate “shrimp boils” – rather than clambakes or clam boils – that they’ve seen featured on television’s Food Network. Shrimp boils are popular in New Orleans and usually include andouille sausage and Cajun seasonings.
Whether you’re hosting a shrimp boil or a clam boil, Offield says fresh seafood is key to a tasty meal.
“You’ll get the best taste when you buy the freshest ingredients,” he says.
Offield says if your heart is set on a traditional clambake instead of a boil, it can be done in the Spokane area, too. A Williams Seafood customer from Coeur d’Alene hosted one on the lake last year, he says. She special ordered 15 pounds of seaweed from him, along with 30 live crabs and several pounds of shrimp.
“They dug a pit and everything,” Offield says. “It was a big deal. … I really wanted to go.”
The seaweed came from western Washington and wasn’t outrageously expensive, he recalls. Even though you’re paying for something you’re not going to eat, Offield says it’s worth the extra effort.
“It’s not something you’re going to do all the time, so when you do it you want to do it right,” he says.
From “The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining” by Cheryl and Bill Jamison. This recipe requires a large covered grill. If your grill is kettle-size, the Jamisons suggest halving the ingredients – and your guest list.
8 to 10 medium Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn or waxy red potatoes
8 to 10 small to medium onions
8 to 10 small ears corn
2 to 3 cups wood chips or chunks, preferably maple or oak, soaked
5 to 6 pounds steamer clams or 7 to 8 pounds littleneck clams, soaked in several changes of water
Several pounds damp rockweed or other seaweed, wet, or 6-8 feet of cheesecloth plus 3 1/2-4 ounces dried kombu or other dried seaweed (from Asian section of a supermarket), soaked together in water
Several cups clam broth or juice, heated if using steamer clams, optional
1/2 pound salted butter, melted
Parboil the potatoes and onions together in salted water for about five minutes, until soft on the surfaces, then drain.
Fold the husks down on each ear of corn and remove the silks. Return the husks to their original position and soak the ears in a bowl or clean bucket of water while you get the grill going.
Turn on one burner on a gas grill or build a charcoal fire to one side. Place an oven thermometer on the grill in the center of the unheated portion and heat the grill covered to 350 to 375 degrees. Regulate the temperature as needed.
If using a gas grill without a smoker box, wrap the wood loosely in foil, then poke holes in the foil with a fork in a half dozen spots. Place the foil pouch on a burner or the wood chips in a gas grill’s smoker box before you begin cooking. If using a charcoal grill, toss the wood on the fire just before you start.
Arrange the food on the grill over the unheated section. Put the potatoes and onions closest to the heat, the corn the farthest away and the clams on top. Food can be stacked if needed. Cover the food with seaweed or the wet cheesecloth, folding it as needed and keeping the edge away from the fire. Close the grill.
Plan on a total cooking time of 30 to 45 minutes. Cook for about 15 minutes, then open and mist with water from a spray bottle. Repeat in about 10 minutes more. Check the progress and cook for a few minutes more as necessary.
When ready, the clams will have opened and the vegetables should all be tender.
With tongs, remove everything from the grill. Pile it on a baking sheet or platter and try to keep as much clam broth in the clamshells as you can. Discard any clams that haven’t opened by the time the rest of them and the other foods are ready. Divide the ingredients among plates and serve.
To eat, pop a clam out of its shell, then dunk it in the optional clam broth, then in the melted butter. The potatoes and corn can be dressed with butter, too.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.
From “The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food,” by Jasper White
White calls this a clambake, although technically it’s a clam boil. You will need a 4-gallon or larger kettle with a tight-fitting lid and four 12-inch-square mesh bags. If you can’t find mesh bags, bundle the clambakes in fishnet or cheesecloth.
For the Spiced Seafood Salt:
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, very finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, crushed or finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried dill weed
1 tablespoon granulated garlic (optional)
For the clambakes:
8 medium new potatoes, red or white
1/4 cup spiced seafood salt (recipe above)
4 ears corn, shucked
1 1/2 pounds steamer clams, scrubbed well
1 pound chorizo or linguiça sausage, cut into four pieces
4 live lobsters, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds each
5 extra large eggs in the shell
1 lemon, cut into four wedges
4 ounces or more unsalted butter
To make the Spiced Seafood Salt: Place the thyme and lemon zest on a paper towel and let them sit out in the open air for 30 minutes. Transfer the thyme and zest to a small bowl, add the salt, brown sugar, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, fennel seeds, dill, and the optional garlic. Mix well. Place the mixture in a sealed container and refrigerator or freeze until ready to use.
To make the clambakes: Boil or steam the potatoes until fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Cool, then refrigerate.
Place your large pot on the stove and add 1 inch of salted water. Use a rack to elevate the clambakes above the water (rockweed makes a great natural steam rack). Cover and bring the water to a boil. When the pot fills up with steam, add 2 tablespoons of the spiced salt to the water. Bring to a rolling boil and cover tightly.
Meanwhile, divide the potatoes, corn, mussels, steamers and sausage among the mesh bags. Place the lobsters in the bags (take off the rubber bands carefully.) Right before you add the lobsters to the pot, add 1 egg to each bag.
Seal the bags, then gently place them in the pot. Place the extra egg in the center, where you can easily retrieve it. Cover the pot tightly and steam the “bakes” for about 20 minutes. Remove the egg and crack it open. If it is hard-boiled, the clambakes are cooked.
Put each bag on a large plate and use a knife or scissors to cut it open through the center. Spread out the food and sprinkle lightly with the remaining 2 tablespoons spiced salt. Serve with the lemon wedges and with the drawn butter and some of the broth from the pot in separate cups.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.
Not sure what to do with all the leftover clams from your clambake? Make clam fritters, a favorite in coastal New England. This recipe is from “The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook,” by Mary Donovan, Amy Hatrak, Frances Mills and Elizabeth Shull. Clam fritters often are also called clam cakes.
1 tablespoon onion, chopped
2 cups clams, shelled
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
Enough milk to make a thin batter
Chop the onions and the clams together. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring until you achieve a thin batter.
Fry as you would pancakes on a greased iron griddle.
Serve very hot and accompany the fritters with fresh bread and a salad of greens for a luncheon or a light supper.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 389 calories, 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated, 14 percent fat calories), 48 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrate, 168 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 370 milligrams sodium.