Friends, I have been waiting for this day for weeks. I have been tiptoeing around like my sister and I used to when we were making an especially extraordinary construction paper Christmas present for our parents, beaming and whispering and wishing the day to give it away would just hurry up and get here. And now lo and behold, here it is, and I don't even know where to start. I guess the best place is with the dahlias. They are lovely, aren't they?
They were handpicked from a garden in Westport for the one hundred and twenty-first annual Allen's Neck Clambake, held the third Thursday of every August since 1888. If you look closely, you can see that they are set up on a picnic table in a grove, and that there are an awful lot of picnic tables stretching out on all sides, and in every direction, all decorated with white clothes and home grown flowers and paper napkins and plates. That's because the Allen's Neck Meeting House—the same Quaker congregation that's been putting this clambake on since the very first summer—sells out five hundred tickets each year. One hundred and fifty volunteers set everything thing up, and just about the whole town comes to eat.
The bakemasters are in charge, and the work starts at 7 am when they build the fire.
They build it on a big, concrete slab in the middle of the grove, sort of like you would a log cabin, with interlocking layers, and then they fill each layer with stones. That way, when they rake out the logs a few hours later, the rocks will tumble down onto either side of the concrete, evenly, and the hot wood and ashes can be swept away. Men put on fire coats and heavy boots and someone brings out a hose, and what you see up there disappears into a cloud of smoke and emerges as a perfect bed of hot cooking stones. This all happens at 11:30, in a hushed, reverent silence—The Rake Out, as they call it—and it is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
Once the stones are set and everyone's boots have been hosed down so their toes don't sizzle up, a pick-up truck full of rock weed arrives and the men start throwing it over the rocks. The rock weed crackles and hisses as its bubbles pop in the heat, and the steam gets so thick you can hardly see your own feet. Next, they load up the food—boxes and boxes of clams and potatoes and onions and tripe stacked up in perfect squares. When the whole meal is on board, they cover it with a wet tarp, and then another wet tarp, and then another, and then finally a few more dry ones on top. They weight down some of the sides, but they make sure to leave some holes, too, because otherwise, the pressure from the steam will blow the whole thing up. It's the most unnecessary and wonderful clambake procedure I've ever seen.
Kathy Neustadt, an expert on clambakes, agrees. She's the one who invited me to come experience the event at Allen's Neck. I think she knew how excited I would be because this was the very first clambake she ever went to, back in 1984, and she got so excited about it that she researched clambakes for 8 years. This led, in turn, to a book—Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition. Kathy says that over the course of writing it, she came to believe that how a community puts on a clambake is like a window into its soul.
At first, I thought this was sort of a grandiose way to think about a clambake, but then I found out that the one at Allen's Neck doesn't have lobster. This put me into a swivet, having grown up in Maine and all, and I realized Kathy was right. How you put on a clambake says more than you think about who you are, and where you're from.
At any rate, 'tis the season. Kathy will be at the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford this weekend, talking about the history and traditions of New England clambakes, and I'm sure she'd love to see you if you have time to stop by. There will also be all sorts of other interesting talks and tours and good food and on the whole just a lot of fun, so I wouldn't skip it if you live nearby. For more information, you can head on over here. Oh! And you can read more about Kathy's book in this direction.
Enjoy your weekends, everyone.