by David Cecelski
When I saw the daily specials board at Clawson’s Restaurant in Beaufort the other night, I couldn’t believe my eyes:clambake, it said. Impossible, I told myself, it can’t really be true. I had never seen clambake in a restaurant or café before. It’s old, traditional fare and a dish that you find only at family reunions, big Sunday dinners and church picnics, mainly in the old fishing villages east of North River, down along Core Sound.
While Core Sound is its native ground here in North Carolina, clambake is found in varying guises in traditional coastal communities throughout the Atlantic coast. You can find it in New England, where it’s traditionally cooked on the beach in a fashion that makes use of ashes, seaweed and hot rocks. Up there it’s called “clam boil” if it’s cooked in a kitchen. But you can also find renditions of clambake along much of the Southern coast, including the South Carolina Low Country, where it’s called Frogmore stew.
The Down East version of clambake is really something special, though. It’s a hearty stew of littleneck or cherry stone clams (in the shell), shrimp, and sometimes other seafood, mixed with chicken or sausage (or both), and slow-cooked in a big pot with layers of potatoes (white, sweet or both). The stew also features corn on the cob, onions and other vegetables—rutabagas, turnips, carrots, cabbage, almost anything.
You don’t use more than an inch or two of water in your clambake pot, just enough to steam the ingredients slowly, over 2 or 3 hours at least. That way the vegetables grow tender, the flavors blend nicely, and you end up with a hearty broth that tastes like the sea. We used to call the part-time fishermen, part-time farmers in that part of the world “saltwater farmers” and I’ve always felt that clambake is the dish that best captures their way of life, the sea and the farm together in one pot.
But I certainly didn’t expect to see clambake at Clawson’s. Don’t get me wrong—Clawson’s is a fine restaurant. I’ve been eating there most of my life and I’ve never had a bad meal. But like I said, you just don’t see clambake on a menu anywhere. The seafood has to be local and fresh, there are a lot of ingredients, and you have to simmer the dish slowly for hours, sometimes, for best effect, gently ladling the juices in the bottom of the pot over the vegetables on top. Making clambake is a lot more trouble than serving up a plate of fried fish, Cole slaw and hushpuppies.
At Clawson’s I was eating with my friend Karen fromHarkersIsland, one of the Downeast communities where clambake is a cherished dish, and she, like me, was skeptical. But she also told me that the restaurant’s owner is now a fellow from HarkersIsland. Maybe the clambake was the real deal after all. So I put aside my skepticism and decided that I’d try Clawson’s rendition of this wonderful stew.
And it was the real deal. When the waitress brought the clambake, held together in a net bag inside a bowl, Karen nodded approvingly. The cook had prepared the dish with littleneck clams, mussels and shrimp stewed together with pieces of spicy hot sausage, white potatoes, broken-up pieces of corn on the cob, celery and onions. I didn’t have any chicken in mine, but I bet the cook used chicken broth, which had blended delightfully with the clam and mussel juices, and all of it was seasoned with lots of black pepper, which, combined with the red pepper in the sausage, gave it a real kick.
I rejoiced—Clawson’s clambake is worth a trip to Beaufort all by itself. (Call ahead—it was only the Saturday night special.) Karen and I ate and talked and gave thanks for a little taste of Down East there on Front Street. The waitress even brought us hot light rolls, also a Down East delicacy, so that I could sop up the broth, which I did, down to the last drop, with glee.
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Here’s a recipe for clambake that I found in one of my favorite cookbooks, Island Born and Bred, compiled by the ladies at the HarkersIslandUnitedMethodistChurch under the leadership of my messmate, Karen Willis Amspacher, back in 1986. This recipe comes from Mrs. Polly Davis:
80 top-nick or 48 cherry stone clams (in shell)
8 fryer-size chicken quarters
8-10 small/medium white potatoes, unpeeled
8 small sweet potatoes
8-10 small/medium onions, peeled
8-10 carrots scraped and cut-in-half
5 ears corn, cut-in-half
2-3 lbs. headed shrimp, unpeeled
Salt and pepper to taste
1 stick butter (optional)
Wash and scrub clams thoroughly with brush. Place in clambake pot (16-20 quart). Layer other ingredients on top of clams—in order as listed. Use approx. 1 to 1½ inches of water in bottom portion of pot for steaming.
Allow a good steam to start then cook with low to medium steam approx. 2 ½ – 3 hours—cooking time may vary. Yield: 6-8 servings.
Note: Be sure there is always enough liquid in pot to provide a good steam. For best results do not add corn and shrimp until last 45-60 minutes. Frequently run-off steaming liquid and pour over all ingredients to achieve a better blend in taste. May increase or decrease any or all of the ingredients—depending on size of pot and appetite.