A Traditional New England Clambake

Lobsters, corn, potatoes, clams

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Nothing beats the old-fashioned summer tradition of a family clambake on the beach. This favorite New England pastime dates back hundreds of years to when the first European settlers learned the practice of cooking food in a pit from Indigenous peoples. Today, typical clambake fare includes lobster, clams, potatoes, and corn, wrapped and steamed in seaweed (a menu and preparation similar to that of ancestors). Spending a day on the beach recreating this American pastime makes the perfect top off to your beach vacation. 

Digging the Pit

Before hosting a clambake, make sure it's legal to cook on your preferred beach. Then, invite tons of friends and family and start digging. The ideal pit size for accommodating your various crustaceans and veggies should measure approximately three feet deep and four to five feet in diameter. Once the pit is dug, line the bottom of your pit with large stones that are six to eight inches around. Tackle this preparation in the early morning, before the sun is high and the sand is hot.

Building the Fire

Next, build a fire on top of the rocks using hardwood you brought from home, bought from a general store, or collected on the beach. Driftwood also works well in a pinch. Allow your fire to burn for several hours (and most of the afternoon), re-stoking it, as needed. In the final hour before cooking, as a hack, add charcoal to your bed of embers to ensure ample heat for cooking your food. If you choose to omit the charcoal, test your heat source by splashing water on the rocks—the water should sizzle and evaporate upon contact. When your fire dies down to just embers and charcoal, it's ready to cook on. Rake out any extra wood and ash, and then cover the hot rocks and charcoal with a three-inch layer of wet seaweed.

Preparing the Food

The quantity of food you buy to cook depends on the crowd size. An intimate feed for 6 to 8 people calls for at least one 1 1/4-pound lobster per person, 2 pounds new potatoes, 6 pounds littleneck or cherrystone clams, and 1 ear of corn per person (husk on). If you're expecting more, bump up the quantities to the sufficient amount of food needed—your fire pit can handle it. Purchase your lobster and clams live, and on the day of cooking, and keep them chilled until you're ready to steam them. Rinse and scrub the clams in a sink, prior to cooking, and wash and pierce the potatoes with a knife. Then, wrap the corn and potatoes individually in foil and load all the food items into a cheesecloth sack, placing it on top of the embers. Cover the food with another 2 inches of wet seaweed and watch it steam.

(Note: Have a few buckets of seawater on hand to drizzle over the pit for a good steam. Having water available also serves as a safety precaution, in the event of a fire gone out of control.) 

Steaming and Serving the Meal

Cover the entire pit with a burlap sack or large piece of canvas that has been soaked in seawater. Secure the sides of the sack with heavy rocks or sand to seal in the steam. Let the entire ensemble cook for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. And don't forget to melt 1 pound of butter for dipping. This can be done in a pot at the edge of your pit or at home on the stove, prior to serving. 

When done, lobsters will turn red, clamshells will open, and potatoes should be easily pierced with a fork. Use oven mitts or leather fire gloves to remove the food from the pit. Place the food sack on a tarp in the sand or on a picnic table and serve it buffet style, with individual cups of melted butter. Accompany your meal with cold beer, white wine, or Prosecco.