Like Thanksgiving dinner, clambakes are inextricably tied to New England, where historical lore tells us that American Indians instructed the Pilgrims in the process of steaming shellfish over seaweed in a rock-lined fire pit.
Historical lore, however, happens to be wrong. According to "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink" (2007 Oxford University Press), American Indians ate clams, but the Pilgrims equated them with "savagery" and fed them to their pigs. Clams were, in fact, considered a "starvation ration." After the American Revolution, the book avers, the new nation needed "an icon of its new cultural identity," and an "ancient ritual" like a clambake, featuring "indigenous foods," provided it. The myth grew exponentially after the Civil War, when yet another national myth was again created, and "Plymouth replaced Jamestown as the cradle of America" and the "New England clambake" became an American institution.
Once mass transportation was developed in the 19th century, entrepreneurs on the New England coast began bringing in tourists to "clambake pavilions;" the state of Rhode Island was at one time famous for them. Clambakes became an important fundraising tool for many a turn-of-the-century politician. The "traditional" New England clambake does indeed occur in a fire pit dug into the sand, lined with rocks. When the rocks are hot, they are covered with layers of seaweed, clams, potatoes, corn, chorizo sausage and, often, lobster. A wet tarp is placed over all until the food is cooked
Don't live on the ocean? Not a New Englander? No problem. "Grill It!" from Better Homes & Gardens (2011 Wiley) details a simple method for having a clambake on your backyard grill. (The book gives step-by-step instructions and photos for all manner of grilling.)
I have also used a stovetop method for several years. (Recipe available at dailyherald.com/entlife/food.)
No digging a pit. No building a fire. No seaweed. Even better, your clambake will be a politician-free zone.
Y Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). More at marialisacalta.com.