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Food Stories

History of the New England Clambake

By Suzannah Schneider | July 21, 2014

Photo by andrewyang
Photo by andrewyang

Photo by andrewyang

Marcus is hosting a traditional New England clambake on the Jersey Shore this Saturday at The Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival. In preparing for the event, many of us here in the Marcus Samuelsson Group offices recently found ourselves quite curious about the custom. We turned to trusty Google to learn more, and wanted to share our findings with you.

Today, clambakes are no longer exclusive to New England, as they are incredibly popular in Ohio and even California. There are also endless variations in technique and ingredients. For instance, some clambakes include sausages and other meat. In the past, seafood was not considered an adequate protein source for the men doing the hard labor of digging and gathering for the clambake, so meat was added for energy. This is why some clam chowder includes ham bone or bacon. Other menu items for a clambake can include lobster, white potatoes, corn, and cold beer; the only universal item is steamed clams. Clambakes have also been streamlined in recent years with the use of enormous stainless-steel pots heated by propane burners.

We were astonished to learn that clambakes have been a tradition in New England for over 2,000 years. Native American tribes of states such as Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut have long cooked clams and lobsters in sand pits as means of subsistence. In fact, it is possible to still stumble upon remnants of historic cooking pits in Rhode Island.

A 1947 clambake in Pembroke, Massachusetts. Photo by Boston Public Library

A 1947 clambake in Pembroke, Massachusetts. Photo by Boston Public Library

A traditional clambake begins by digging a pit in the sand of the beach where the clams are gathered. The pit is a product of centuries past: Native Americans did not have massive cooking pots, so they used the earth as their cooking vessel. The pit is then filled with seaweed, lined with hot rocks or stones that have been heated until white-hot over a wood fire. Next, live clams, mussels, and lobsters are added, and the pit is covered with more seaweed and some sand. Finally, a wet tarp of canvas or plastic is laid over all until the food is cooked.

The end product of a clambake is not necessarily a decadent meal. Clambakes are the types of cultural traditions that don’t just feed the participants. Instead, they are deeply nourishing events for the individual and the community. Kathy Neustadt’s book Clambake paints a vivid picture of the Allen’s Neck Friends Meeting’s annual clambake in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, which has occurred on the third Thursday of August since 1888 (!). Neustadt discusses how the event is inclusive, relying on the abilities of every individual.  She also emphasizes how clambakes revere the surrounding environment, relying on the fertile soil and easy access to the ocean to create the custom. Clambakes exist as a reminder of ancestry as time marches on.

Few meals are as fulfilling as a clambake. It is an all-day activity that yields scrumptious results, but the long process and intricate cooking method creates a reverence for the tradition and its participants.

 

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Whether it’s finding the best goat tacos in LA, spotting a well-worn vintage bag in Sweden, or interviewing the “crab man” selling seafood on a corner in Harlem, we tell stories seen from Chef Marcus Samuelsson‘s point of view. MarcusSamuelsson.com strives to create conversations about food, nutrition, culture, art, and design. We want to find Read More

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