Cookbook author Jennifer Trainer Thompson's primer on the ancient rite.

By Jennifer Trainer Thompson
June 03, 2015

Cookbook Author Jennifer Trainer Thompson illustrates how to create a traditional clambake on the beach.

Photo: Buff Strickland

As steeped in lore as lighthouses and Moby-Dick, a clambake is a traditional New England way of steaming seafood. When the Pilgrims set foot on our sandy shores in 1621, the Wampanoags and other coastal Native Americans had been cooking clams and lobsters in sand pits on the beach for 2,000 years.

My cottage sits on a small peninsula in the Massachusetts coastal village of Mattapoisett (a Wampanoag word said to mean "place of rest"). I grew up clamming and fishing here with my cousins, and clambakes have always been a summer ritual. What could be better than a day at the beach, digging in the sand, building a bonfire, and ending with a smoky, briny feast? The food comes from the sea, and the beach is your cooking vessel. 

Cleanup is about as simple as it gets: Fill in the pit and let the tides reclaim all the necessary rocks and seaweed.

So don't wait for a special event. Gather a few mates, pack cold microbrewed beer and fresh seafood, and have a ball "breaking the bake" yourself. Everyone in your group, young or old, can pitch in with a job and feel that they own it. On a sunny day in high summer, a clambake is invigorating, deeply satisfying, as old as an Indian legend, as practical as a Yankee's shed, and truly one of the few aboriginal culinary customs of the coast.

A journalist for over 20 years, Jennifer Trainer Thompson writes about science, food, travel, art, and lifestyle for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Harvard Magazine among others, and has garnered a reputation for sniffing out trends.

Photo: Buff Strickland; Illustration: Tempy Segrest