What made those Bostonians so patriotic? Why, the good old American clam bake, one of the tastiest pleasures of summer.
By Leslie Bilderback 08/01/2010
Because I live in Southern California, everyone assumes I spend my summers at the beach. What most people don’t realize is that from where we are in the San Gabriel Valley, it is 30 miles to the nearest beach (well over an hour of travel time on the weekend along the Santa Monica Freeway, no longer the free-flowing thoroughfare envisioned by its engineers in the 1960s). I like the beach, but visits are more of an expedition than an outing. I was rudely aroused from my California dreamin' the day I realized that going to the beach is not something that can be casually done.
Yes, a day at the beach requires hats, towels, chairs, umbrellas and boogie boards. But before even the first tube of sunscreen is purchased, there is preliminary preparation beginning in February with the commencement of daily sit-ups to counteract a winter of gluttony. If I can stick to that, the next step is the search for the perfect swimsuit. (Why is it that swimsuits are sold in the winter, and winter coats in the summer? Does the fashion industry think this is funny? I seriously doubt that real people plan that far in advance. Most people can’t think far enough ahead to activate their turn signals before they reach the intersection.) Swimsuit shopping must be taken seriously, because this could very well be the year l finally receive an invitation to a private beach party in a Malibu compound.
It’s funny that I spend so much time on my swimwear, because the fact is, I don’t really like to swim in the ocean. I have nothing against swimming. It's just that I hate being cold. There is nothing worse than finally getting used to the water temperature, only to get out and spend the remainder of the afternoon shivering in the “comfort” of a damp, sandy towel. I am wary of the riptide too, which once caught me and required a lifeguard rescue that was nothing like the ones on Baywatch. (He basically stood on the shore and waved me in down the beach a bit. For that they need special training?)
Also, I have an unnatural aversion to sea foam. This stems from two contradictory tales about its creation I remember from childhood. According to my family, foam is made when people pee in the water and when little mermaids die. Neither sounds refreshing to me. (The mermaid explanation is from Hans Christian Andersen’s story, not Disney’s. Andersen’s is a much better tale, although I do like Disney’s singing crab, and the lyrics to Le Poisson: “Now I stuff you with bread — it won’t hurt, ’cause you’re dead.”)
So if I am not swimming at the beach, what am I doing? Eating, of course! What better place to shove food into one’s mouth than one where napkins, utensils and (dare I say) clothing are optional? A little dribble down the chin? A sticky finger or two? Clean it with tide. Literally.
Cooking at the beach can be fun. Of course, you will have to visit one of the few beaches with cement fire rings and be willing to get there early to claim one. (Summer weekends require an 8 a.m. commitment.) There is no limit to the foods that can be cooked over an open flame, but the most common item on the seaside menu is the ubiquitous wiener on a stick. (Nothing pleases me more than when I am able to fit the word “wiener” into this column.) Sure, there are those who dabble in fresh fish or sausages or carne asada. I have even seen a few hardy souls bring along their own Weber. But schlepping a mobile kitchen through the sand has about as much appeal for me as body surfing in a thong. (This is why I never warmed up to a career in catering. The most I am willing to carry to an off-site event is a package of Hebrew Nationals and a coat hanger.)
There is, however, one beach dinner that I long to cook. I would gladly schlep its fixin’s across hot sand in 99 Cent Store flip-flops. This meal is the epitome of beach cooking, a celebration of the sea’s bounty and the worst Elvis movie ever.
I'm talking about the Clam Bake.
A traditional New England Clam Bake is a subterranean endeavor. A pit is dug in the sand, a fire is lit inside and rocks are added to create a source of radiant heat. Some old cookbooks call for the use of cannonballs instead of rocks. I believe that tradition was started by patriots in Boston, bored to tears after the British fled to Nova Scotia at the sight of the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga. (Surplus cannon-balls + shellfish + bored Minute Men = party! Now that would’ve made a good Elvis movie. Tri-corner hats and bikinis!) On top of the hot coals are layers of seaweed, potatoes, corn and seafood, stacked until the pit is full. The entire thing is covered with a sea-water-soaked cloth and allowed to steam for several hours.
Pit ovens are as ancient as the rock lobster and were used in many oceanside cultures. The Maori have the hangi, a pit oven used to cook lamb, pork, chicken and root vegetables, layered with taro leaves. In Hawaii the kalua pig, cooked in a pit by scantily clad hotel employees, is an essential component of the luau. But here in California, I have yet to visit a beach that will allow me to dig a pit and light a fire inside it. All fires on California beaches must be contained and aboveground.
I am a law-abiding citizen, and I will obey the beach regulations. But I can't help but wonder why such a rule exists. Perhaps they are afraid there will be a rash of pit cooking, and thoughtless seaside chefs will leave the beach littered with pits, into which young children will fall. (No one seems to mind when I bury my kids neck deep, or dig a giant moat around my sandcastle. Yes, I build sandcastles. I think of them as inedible gingerbread houses. ) I seriously doubt there will be a hazardous number of pits.
Californians can barely get out of their car to eat, let alone dig a pit first. And even if there were dangerous pits left here and there, would it be so wrong for today’s kids to spend an hour or two in a deep hole? It would give them a chance to contemplate their circumstances and perhaps reevaluate their attitude toward their parents. (Just a thought. I'm not planning anything.)
Unless you have a private beach or a very deep sandbox, you'll have to make do with this faux clam bake. For authenticity, harvest a little seaweed and add it to your coals. If you're lucky, the smell just might confuse a wayward seagull, who will swoop down and try to steal your dinner, just like when you're at the beach.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker and chef, a cookbook author and a former executive chef of Pasadena’s California School of Culinary Arts. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.