How To Prepare A Traditional New England Clambake

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A traditional New England clambake was part of the first Thanksgiving feast and a gift from the Wampanoag Indians.

A traditional New England clambake was introduced to the early settlers by the Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoags (People of First Light) would summer on the southeastern Massachusetts ocean shores to take advantage of the bounty and cool ocean breezes just as we do today. They believe in the Circle of Life. Everything on earth is alive - the plants, animals, birds, water, air, and stones. They must be respected. In return everything one needs will be given by the earth and must be given back to the earth.

The Appanaug or "seafood cooking" was a celebration event of the Circle of Life used to commemorate a special person or to mark the seasons. Seafood was easily gathered from the ocean shore and marshlands due to the abundance of the time. Lobsters were so plentiful that they actually crawled up onto the beaches.

A round pit was dug in the sand above the high tide line or in the woods where it "felt right." Wetting down the sides of the pit with sea water kept the sand from reclaiming the hole. The pit was lined with Rock People - old rocks made smooth by the sea. A fire was built in the bottom of the pit from wood gathered from the forest floor. When the rocks were glowing hot, rockweed was added, then the seafood and corn, and then another layer of rockweed. Rockweed contains little pods of gas and a great amount of salt water. The Medicine Circle of Life was complete. While the seafood was cooking the Indians gave thanks and said prayers for all that has been given to them by The Great Spirit.

Today we still hold this tradition as a celebration of the bounty of the sea coast. We use the clambake as a fundraising event by non-profit organizations, a meal for graduation ceremonies, to commemorate the Fourth Of July, to honor our heroes, and to reflect on the end of another great summer. Although lobsters aren't walking on the shore anymore, the fish markets are always stocked if you can afford them. The sea still has a bounty of seafood to offer. Licenses may be required to dig quahogs and clams. Fishing has its restrictions. What was once free for the gathering can now be a costly affair.

Over the years, the local diverse population has added their touches to the clambake. You can make it as simple or diverse as you wish. The basic ingredients are:

  • 1 qt clams/person
  • potatoes
  • corn
  • onions
  • 2 hotdogs/person
  • 2 breakfast sausages/person
  • 2-4" length of linguica or chourico (Portuguese sausage)/person
  • lots of rockweed

For added flair you can include:

  • 1 lobster/person
  • rock crab
  • sweet potato
  • codfish wrapped in brown paper or lunch bags
  • littleneck quahogs
  • mussels
  • periwinkles
  • shell-on shrimp
  • a heated pot of New England Clam Chowder

Potatoes and onions will take the longest to steam so should be added first closest to the hot rocks on top of a thick layer of rockweed. Follow with the meats and fish. Top with the lobsters and shellfish and another thick layer of rockweed. Have some sea water handy to add if needed to keep steam going. A damp tarp laid over the pit will seal in the steam and heat. Some folk parboil the onions, potatoes, and sausage before the event. Cooking time is around 1 1/2-2 hours so have some entertainment or games planned. Check doneness of potatoes and onions. Shellfish will open when done. Lobsters and crabs will turn red and orange respectively. Serve in 1/2 pan disposable steam table pans. Provide some lids for taking home leftovers.

The traditional New England clambake is well worth the effort for a feast sure to please. There is something for everyone. Whether you need a fundraising event or a family celebration, a clambake can become a new tradition for you. Enjoy!


Athena Goodlight
Posted on Aug 1, 2010
Nobert Bermosa
Posted on Jul 30, 2010
Diane Gray
Posted on Jul 29, 2010
Posted on Jul 29, 2010