A Real Downeast Clambake
A clambake combines several genuine Maine shore experiences; the gathering of the sea’s bounty, building a nice fire, exotic seaside aromas and a great feast. Local professionals will build you one and supply all the food for a hefty price. You can even get a “clambake” delivered to your door, minus the fire. But with just a little work you can do your own. Besides the ingredients you need a venue. A shoreside fire pit fits the bill. A lonely stretch of beach with the pit dug during low tide will work, just make sure the tide doesn’t rise too soon and that the land owner is on board. One of our best clambakes was in our driveway!
The primary feature of the fire is rocks and hardwood. The hot rocks will do the cooking after the fire is reduced to embers, so they should be big-ish (like your head). The hardwood will burn hot enough to get the rocks hot. The rocks may split from the heat, but that’s par for the course. Think of it as a bonfire, quick and hot. Just make sure the rocks are hot enough to steam any water they contact. As the fire burns down you need to be ready for the next step: the seaweed. Collect about 25 gallons of rockweed from the shore. That’s the ubiquitous brown bladder-bearing stuff that is so common you will have no problem finding it unless you look for it at high tide.
Meanwhile, another crew is preparing the food. Corn should be cleaned of silk but not husks, the husks are folded back over the ears. Our October feast was corn deprived; grocery stores were out.
Clams should be in mesh bags. That’s often the way they come from the fish store (like Downeast Lobster Co., 1192 Bar Harbor Rd, Trenton, ME 04605). Otherwise use loose fitting potato or onion bags, or improvise with cheesecloth. There should be plenty of room for the clams to open. Mussels and other shellfish can also be prepared the same way. Mussels can often be collected at low tide right on the shore without a license, but be sure there are no red tide or pollution closures for your area. Pollution closures occur often after heavy rains when poo washes down from the land. The Maine shellfish hotline is 1 800 232-4733. The lobsters need no preparation besides last rites, but I like to cut off their bands before they go in. Potatoes should be quartered and partially precooked, since the big problem with this process is overcooking of the clams.
Back to the fire. The big heat-producing phase is over and the hardwood is reduced to coals. A tender with a rake is making sure all the wood is burned or raked away, and the rocks are pushed together. Now everyone gets in the act. Start throwing seaweed onto the pit. Immediately you will hear popping as the air bladders explode and send their flavorful steam through the air. Keep dumping on seaweed until you achieve a six to eight inch layer. Now it’s time to throw on the food. Reserve the hottest areas for all but the clams, place the clams at the perimeter or on top of other food. Some like to put in a raw egg. When the egg is hard boiled it means the bake is done. Cover with another layer of seaweed and a wet tarp or old bed sheet. Anchor the sheet with rocks at the edge. You will see steam rising through the weave of the cloth. Start timing. After 1/2 hour uncover the food and look for open clams, that means it’s time to eat. The process may take up to one hour or more based on the heat of the rocks. You may find some items are not quite ready, but if the clams are done, don’t leave them in! First course! Keep a hose or water bucket handy in case the tarp catches on fire.
I can’t claim to be an expert at this. Be prepared like I am to pop some potatoes or corn into the microwave because they weren’t over a hot spot. But overcooked clams are to be avoided, unlike lobsters, which can stay in longer without harm. The best part of a clambake is not the perfection of the timing, but the flavors of woodsmoke and seaweed which infuses the food, and the fun you and your friends have putting it all together.
If you want the flavor of a clambake without the pit and the big group, consider wrapping the ingredients (seaweed, lobster, clams, corn, etc.) into an aluminum foil pouch and cooking it on the grill or in the oven. It comes pretty close!