Carrying on a clambake tradition

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    Prepping for the Bake — In the foreground: 3lbs of butter, 9 lbs of potatoes. In the background: Abstract painting from the collection of Stephen Messina

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    Almost any shellfish can be added to the steampot — just a few crabs chillin'

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    Unlike a low country boil- the steampot is emptied onto platters for serving

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    12,000 BTU propane burner for steady heat

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Story by Meredith S. Jensen • Photos by Adriana Bernardino & Sam Girton

As summer turns to fall, you’ll find many Clevelanders turning their thoughts toward a culinary custom literally steeped in history—a clambake.

The origins of the tradition are a little murky, but dates and rules shouldn’t be what defines a good time. The clambake made its way to Ohio from New England sometime within the last 100 years or so, maybe a little sooner. On the ocean coast, the feast is cooked over flame in large pits on the beach, but in the Midwest, a big pot will do you just fine. Clams, chicken, potatoes, and sweet corn are all steamed together in a broth marked by white wine and flavors of the Atlantic.

For some Mid-Ohio Valley transplants, the Northeast Ohio tradition isn’t one to be eschewed simply because of geography. Mirror caught up with a trio of Northeast Ohio siblings, their friends, neighbors, and friends of friends at a clambake in Athens, Ohio.

Sharing a Family History

Brothers Richard and George Woollacott, and their sister Helen Sumskis, are no strangers to the Cleveland-style clambake. Their family kettle is a 1920s-era copper washing machine drum acquired by their father, who was a mail carrier in The Flats. He had a lid and spigot fashioned for it and the rest was neighborhood history.

Photo by Sam Girton

“My parents used it for clambakes for at least 20 years,” said Richard Woollacott. “They hosted two a year—one for friends in a sort of supper club, the other for neighbors.”

As the neighborhood grew and changed, the festivities slowed down. The pot laid dormant for nearly 15 years, buy stayed in the family. “It’s not really something you sell at a garage sale,” Richard said.

A few years ago, brother George pulled the pot from retirement. A fire protection engineer from Fort Wayne, George is also a part-time wine consultant for a personal catering business. He had the pot up until Richard needed it, and figured it was a good time to visit.

“I knew he’d have a handle on it,” George said. “I just came because there was going to be a clambake.”

Sumskis, who lives in Medina, Ohio, also held on to a bit of the tradition— she eventually worked for the same company that put the spigot on the family drum. She enjoys calling up the memories of clambakes they used to have, but doesn’t mind if someone else hosts.

“I don’t miss all the work,” she said with a laugh. “I helped my mother put it together and we always had to start prep the day before. I like having get-togethers, though!”

Dining Details

The same laughter that rolled down the street in Appalachia that night was likely echoed in Cleveland and on New England’s shores. The blue and white Cape Cod theme lent a crisp coolness to an otherwise sweltering evening that kept flirting with rain. Loaves of crusty French bread rested wrapped in linen on the table, waiting to be dredged through warm stock and melted butter. While conversation and bottles opened and flowed into the meal, guests nibbled on crab dip with toast points and pita chips, served with a side of Steely Dan and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Photo by Sam Girton

Friends, neighbors and strangers shared stories and eyed the copper pot. Far away from Cleveland, clams, roasted chicken, and fresh summer vegetables simmered together for hours, suspended in a hearty blend of vegetable stock, water, white wine, chicken fat, butter and clam juice. Routinely, someone siphoned bowls of the broth through the spigot and pour it back into the pot, basting the feast with its own salty liqueur.

Soon the anticipation was over. Family style, heaping bowls of clams netted in cheesecloth came down the tables. Platters were piled high with tender roasted chicken and onions, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, and red potatoes fused with flavor.

Not to be outdone, side dishes paraded alongside the contents of the Woollacott family pot. White bean salad, beets with fresh basil, dressed bitter greens, plus sausages and peppers for good measure. All these riches were sopped up with the French bread, drips of stock and butter dotting the white tablecloths.

Dawn Weiser, who hosted the clambake, said she had a great time spending the day watching everything cook and preparing for the event.

“The neighbors loved it,” she said. “That’s really what its all about.”

 

Photo by Sam Girton

Ohio Style Clambake

YOU WILL NEED:

  • A steamer pot large enough to hold your complete bake (ours held enough for 36 guests!)
  • A two-piece steamer (typically a 20-quart unit with a base pot with a spigot to hold broth, with a deeper pot that sits on top to hold clams and other goodies, plus a lid).

Check with your seafood supplier as they may lend or rent steamers. It is always best to use a pot that is equipped with a spigot so you can baste your bake throughout the steaming process. But if you don’t have a steamer, and your seafood market can’t supply one, a 16-20 quart stockpot with a tight fitting lid and steamer basket will do.

INGREDIENTS (per person):

  • 1-2 dozen middleneck clams per person, rinsed and in mesh seafood bags
  • 1/2 chicken – a split broiler-fryer or precut chicken quarters work well
  • medium yam
  • 3-4 small redskin potatoes
  • 1-2 ears of corn, shucked with silk removed

 

BROTH FOR 10 BAKES:

  • 1 lb. butter (salted)
  • 2 quarts vegetable stock
  • 1/2 bottle dry white wine
  • 2 heads of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch celery
  • white onion

 

DIRECTIONS:

We suggest cooking outdoors on a 12,000 BTU or similar high output burner.

  1. Make sure your clams are rinsed and bagged in mesh seafood bags – this is important so any tasty morsels don’t end up at the bottom of your steamer pot!
  2. In a pan or on the grill, pre-brown your chicken to cook off some of the fat. Do not fully cook your chicken, just brown the outside and remove from heat.
  3. Place your crushed garlic, parsley and marjoram in cheesecloth and tie. set aside.
  4. Place your steamer pot on burner and turn on the heat!
  5. Add butter, vegetable stock, wine, and garlic pouch to the broth.
  6. Place the steamer basket in your stockpot or your steamer pot on your reservoir and secure the lid while the broth heats.
  7. Once butter is melted and broth begins to boil, start layering your bake!
    Layer as follows:
    Clams
    Celery stalks and onion
    Potatoes and yams
    Chicken
    *If you like a variety of seafood mussels, shrimp and crab can be added to your pot!
  8. Every 20 minutes or so, decant broth into a pan from the spigot and pour over the top of the contents. the bake will steam for about 2 hours (and up to 3 if you are cooking for 30 people like we did)
  9. After 1.5 hours add corn, baste a final time, and return the lid to the pot.
  10. When the clams have been steaming for 2 hours, check your bags. With a pair of tongs, expose a bag of clams and lift them from the pot. If the shells are open, turn off the heat and plate your bake!

Unlike a low country boil, the contents of the pot are taken out and plattered for the table. Decant some of the broth so guests can dip their clams or crusty bread.