New England: The Clambake
Do you remember the kind of excitement you used to feel before your birthday? Until about 2 years ago, I still felt it but it’s been replaced by Martha. Tiny as she is, she’s managed re-arrange my set of emotions completely which really sucks but there you have it. She sent me a postcard about 4 days ago and I check to see whether it’s arrived about 10 times a day; since I’m on crutches, it’s quite a feat. The only other things that get me excited are my children, food and emails from James who lives in Maine. He writes very long detailed emails and each one is a
voyage into the history or the food of the United States. They’re real make-coffee-and-sandwiches-first emails since I have to take my time to sit and read each one. Of course I also have Marc from Utah who keeps me updated on business and politics but in true ex-banker style, whilst informative, they’re to the point. This last one was about New England, his home state which was essentially ‘born’ in 1620 when the Pilgrims landed on the rocky, windswept coast of the new continent they would make their home! It was an arduous trip across the Atlantic and the sea wasn’t exactly kind to them – they lost 2 souls at sea.
The coast itself was must have been a challenge & they wisely decided to live on the Mayflower during winter during which time they had a look around. They were probably thrilled when they discovered thick forests & fertile valleys that were supplied with more than enough water by the cold-water lakes, roaring rivers and generous streams. However, the New England climate is severe with long freezing winters and a short growing season. First things first, they had to survive and thanks to the Indians, they managed well; the Indians taught them where to find the plentiful game and fish so they could survive very-well-thank-you throughout the year and it was also the Indians taught them how to cultivate beans, squash & corn, how to forage for roots & where to pick fruit. Since the fridge was a distant dream then, they had to learn how to dry, cure and smoke meat Indian style; today Americans are expert smokers!
The pilgrims didn’t leave England because the weather was awful or they didn’t like the King, they left because they thought the Reformation didn’t reform anything and they clearly weren’t overly fond of the Church of England. In the new country, they were free to worship as they chose. Both James & I think that the challenge of finding food, their own austerity (both religious & personal) and the Puritan’s strict interpretation of the Bible played a role in the simple hearty food they chose to eat. They often cooked everything in one large pot or baked it all together in one oven for practical reasons! It didn’t mean the food wasn’t good, though! Chowders, stews (succotash from the Indians), roasted & boiled fish and simple desserts like pies, cobblers and fruit compotes were made with local ingredients and, at first, following English recipes. Desserts & custards were sweetened with maple syrup or molasses. Later immigrants, especially the Portuguese, Italians and Irish brought their own food to the New England table and that added spice to the plain Yankee fare; in time the food became richer and a lot more exciting. Nowadays, so James tells me, immigrants from South America, the Middle and Far East (who have made the Land of the Free their home) have helped to make New England cuisine more exciting.
The Clambake probably originated from the Indians; their middens (garbage heaps) show that they ate shellfish as much, if not more, than the colonists. The Yankees copied them for good reason and instead of the good old barbecue, they had a clambake. I’d pick the clambake over the barbecue any day.
HOW TO DO IT
- Dig a pit in the sand & line it with large rocks before heating the rocks with wood fires (you make the fire on the rocks & wait for it to burn out).
- Now make a bed of seaweed to form the bottom layer, at which point you line the pit with lobsters, clams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and whatever else you feel like including.
- Cover the food with seaweed and cover that with canvas, wait an hour, lift up the canvas and you’re good to go.
THE MAKING OF THE FIRE
- The day before the clambake (or really early in the morning if you’re going to have it that night), dig a pit on the beach to measure around 1 -1 ½ metres wide and then about 2 metres long and 1 ½ metres deep.
- Collect enough large flattish stones so that you can line the pit as well as loads of hardwood and driftwood for the fire.
- Collect quite a lot of seaweed (it must be seaweed since the little bubbles that burst will generate the steam necessary for the cooking process).
- Make sure that you line the pit properly because that rock bed will retain the heat you’ll need to cook the food – if you slip up here, you’ll have raw food & unless you like your potatoes raw, the stones have to be hot.
- Five hours before you want to eat, start the fire and allow it to burn for 2 hours so that it can get extremely hot.
- Allow the wood to burn down & then sweep the embers off the stone; just push it away to one side.
- It’s a good idea to keep a bucket of seawater in the vicinity just in case something starts flaming up.
- Once the fire is ready, cover the hot stones with a thick layer of soaked seaweed (25 cm or thereabouts); wrap all the food (not the lobsters or crabs) in net bags so that everything doesn’t fall between the rocks, rinse everything in clean seawater and lay it down on the rocks.
- Start with the stuff that takes the longest to cook, like the potatoes (and if you’re going to spoil it all and include chicken, now’s the time to add the chicken too).
- Make layers of seaweed between the layers of food and put the lobsters, tails pointing to the middle (isn’t this clever) so that they walk back into each other, instead of out of the pit.
- Cover the top with more wet seaweed, then a canvas which is finally covered with heavy stones to seal it.
- When you want to check, lift up the canvas but remember the steam – the food should be ready within an hour, usually when the clams are open & the lobsters are well red, the rest will be ready.