What’s 125 years old and still going strong? Which shellfish feast doesn’t include lobster or beer and yet still ranks as one of the best anywhere, ever? Where do “cranky Yankees” (as I saw on a bumper sticker) shell out $50 per ticket and leave smiling? Why did I not discover this annual tradition sooner?
The clambake is hosted by the Quakers of Allen’s Neck Meeting House in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. With about 500 paying guests and over 100 volunteers, this is their annual fundraiser.
Precious little about it has changed over 125 years.
Kathy Neustadt, author of Clambake, describes the one at Allen’s Neck in detail. She argues–and convinces–that public rituals such as clambakes help individuals and communities define who they are. Members of the Dartmouth-Westport-New Bedford communities squeeze side by side at long rows of wooden picnic tables arranged in a grove of trees. Some attendees moved far away but return on annual pilgrimages. They put it in their calendars a year in advance (the third Thursday of August). A man who looked no older than his mid-fifties said this was his 49th clambake. Others rattled off 30+ years as if that was an average. A 93-year old man proclaimed that he’d missed only once since childhood–and that was the year of the Hurricane of 1938. I met four people from Florida, guests of a local couple who winter there, who’d been hearing so many stories of this clambake that they flew up to experience it for themselves.
No wonder it draws people back year after year. It’s a simple, pure, local tradition.
The menu is stunningly satisfying: clams, cod fish, “dressing,” sausage (stuffed into penny-candy bags), local corn-on-the-cob, watermelon, sweet potatoes, onions, melted butter, watermelon, homemade pies.
Equally remarkable is how the food is prepared. The process involves a magnificent union of local knowledge and (mostly) local foods. A bakemaster directs the charge, starting at 7 am when a fire is built on interlocking layers of logs and stones. A plume of smoke slowly clears revealing a bed of hot cooking stones. Truckloads of seaweed from Westport get thrown over the hot rocks. A heavenly briny smell infuses the air and, we later discover, seeps into the flavors of the food. Boxes of food are stacked amidst the seaweed. Clams are at the bottom; the dressing is on the top. In between lies everything else. Wet tarps are stretched over the boxes and weighed down with additional seaweed at the edges while inside the feast steams to moist perfection. Promptly at 1 pm, the food is served.
Afterwards, I longed for only two things. To take a nap. And to enter next year’s into my calendar.