By: Elise Hugus, July 19, 2011
Daniel Cojanu - After 45 minutes, the lobsters are steamed to perfection.
There is nothing quite like dining al fresco in the summertime on Cape Cod. Seasoned by salt air, burning wood and charcoal, a simple picnic or barbeque takes on a whole new flavor by the sea.
The epitome of Cape Cod beach food is a traditional clambake. But due to the time (5-6 hours) and effort required (digging a hole on a private beach, getting a fire permit), most Cape Codders shy away from such a production.
But when making an impression or cooking for a large crowd, nothing beats a clambake.
With roots in the Wampanoag tradition, a clambake actually refers to any sea food—preferably, locally harvested.
Mussels, quahogs, crabs, hard-shelled clams, and lobsters join corn, potatoes, carrots, onions, and linguicia (spicy Portuguese sausage) on a bed of seaweed, where they steam and seep in their own juices.
Preparation begins at least 8 hours before dinnertime, when dedicated clambake artists gather large stones and plenty of firewood. Pallets work well. (Ask your local lumber yard or a nearby warehouse if they have any extras.)
Step 1: Dig a hole
Long-handled shovels and a rake come in handy for digging a hole in the sand. It should measure about three feet deep.
A word to the wise: a fire permit should be obtained from your local fire department before planning a clambake. You are unlikely to have success holding a private clambake on a public beach, so unless you have connections, you can also hold your clambake on land—in your backyard, for example. It requires collecting rocks and seaweed in advance, but otherwise it’s the same.
Lay the stones on the bottom of the hole and build a fire over them. After about 4 hours, the stones will have absorbed enough heat to kill a live lobster. That’s not a joke.
Step 2: Gather green spaghetti
Enlist good swimmers with snorkel gear to gather seaweed. Rockweed—which looks like dready green hair—works best. Fill up a boatload, or enough to cover the hole two times over. If it’s sitting for a while in the hot sun, keep the seaweed moist in a container filled with seawater.
When a good bed of coals are glowing orange like the sunset, rake the wood ash between the stones to create an insulating layer. Next, pile the seaweed on top. The trick is to lay on enough to cover the entire pit, without drowning the fire. (Yes, it will get steamy.)
Let it smoulder for a little while, until the smoke dies down.
Step 3: Kill the crustaceans
Next, it’s time for the animals. Live lobsters can go on whole, but place clams and other small mollusks, shucked corn, whole onions, carrots, and potatoes on top of the seaweed in a reusable linen bag.
After covering the food with a layer of seaweed and sand, cover it all up with a thin sheet or dropcloth that has been wetted in the ocean to prevent burning. Shovel sand onto dropcloth’s the edges to that the whole pile is airtight; then repeat with a thicker tarp.
The food will slowly steam under the bubble that forms. Try not to imagine the lobsters crawling around before they suffocate, morphing from dark green to bright red.
Though the bubble rising out of the sand may look like its about to burst, the seal should be able to withstand the pressure. Leave for 45 minutes.
Step 4: Enjoy!
If there is a large flat rock nearby, that’s the ideal place to melt a pot of butter for dipping the lobster claws.
Don’t forget the nutcrackers! They charm the carapace off a lobster like nothing else.
Special thanks to the Geraghty-Houghton family for letting us observe/photograph/dine at their annual Fourth of July family reunion.