For “Shores and Shellfish” (season 2, episode 11), Weekends with Yankee visited the rocky coast outside Acadia National Park to experience a genuine Maine clambake with three of Portland’s hottest chefs. Here, Weekends with Yankee co-host and Yankee senior food editor Amy Traverso shares a list of spots where you can enjoy an authentic New England clambake on the beach.
The pleasures of a real New England clambake — the kind that begins with a pit in the sand and ends with smoky shellfish dipped in butter — are always burnished by a patina of history and heritage. Here is a return to life as it used to be: a simple, elemental meal enjoyed outdoors, preferably in view of the ocean. Ever wondered about the history of clambakes? Always wanted to enjoy an authentic wood-fired clambake on the beach? Read on to learn more, including where to find some great clambake spots.
New England Clambake History
There’s real heritage to back up our love for clambakes, as shellfish bakes have long been the tradition of Wampanoag, Wabanaki, and other Northeast native tribes. Clambakes as a social event, though, didn’t take root until the late 1700s, when the Old Colony Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts, hosted a “Forefathers’ Day” feast, with a menu of oysters, succotash, clams, and apple pie. Over time, this annual event came to be known as the “Feast of the Shells.”
As leisure travel to the coast became more accessible in the 19th century, the New England clambake achieved ubiquity. To this day, the method hasn’t changed much: Some hardy souls dig a pit on a beach, preferably near some clamming beds, and line it with rocks. A wood fire is set ablaze on the rocks, burned down to coals, then raked away. With the rocks giving off ample heat, the pit is layered with seaweed (which lends steam and smoke) and some combination of clams, mussels, lobsters, corn, potatoes, and smoky meat (like bacon or chouriço or, if you’re in Maine, Red Snapper hot dogs). Some pit masters will also throw in a raw egg as a primitive timer (the white shell is easy to spot among the seaweed, and when the yolk is cooked the lobster should be done, too). Then a wet tarp laid over the top creates a permeable “lid.”
After 90 minutes or so, the tarp is pulled away and the feast begins, with drawn butter, bibs, and lots of napkins at the ready.
Now, plenty of caterers, inns, and restaurants can pull off a clambake “lite,” with lobsters cooked over propane and clams steamed in white wine. But for a real pit-style bake cooked over live fire, you have to look a little harder. Here are some of our favorites.
10 Spots Where You Can Enjoy an Authentic New England Clambake
OK, this isn’t a beachside bake, and it’s not cooked in a pit, but the grill cooks at this Connecticut institution do roast clams, corn, lobster, and mussels over a giant wood-fired grill while customers gather at wood tables surrounded by tree-stump “chairs.” The end result: smoke-kissed seafood, not all that different from the beachier version.
Board the Bennie Alice for a short ride to Cabbage Island, where the Moore family prepares a traditional feast complete with chowder, two lobsters, and blueberry cake. Clambakes happen daily in summer, twice a day on weekends.
If you can provide the beach (private or rented), this catering operation of the Osterville Fish market will prepare a traditional pit clambake for you. They’ll also do a pot-style bake just about anywhere.
Not far from the Rhode Island border, Francis Farm has been hosting clambakes since 1890, and they’re still cooking over live fire on a bed of seaweed. The farm is several miles inland, but the technique hews close to tradition and the facility offers both public and private events.
With sweeping views of Narragansett Bay, the Castle Hill Inn’s traditional wood-fired clambakes are offered to the general public twice per season and are available throughout the summer for private events.
Compton Clambakes specializes in private events, with wood-fired clambakes, raw bars, and brown bread on the side. As with many catering operations, beach bakes are limited to those with access to private property.
In early August, McGrath hosts a traditional, open-to-the-public clambake at the Newport Polo Grounds. Otherwise, it operates as a private events caterer.
Note: Whether on the beach or well inland, though, the New England clambake lives on as an expression of American cooking at its most elemental — and delicious. And you can always bring these flavors home with this recipe for a stovetop clambake. While it won’t have quite the same flavor as a traditional bake, it’s still mighty tasty (plus: no digging required).