A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 31, 2008
Clambake (Clam Bake)

The clambake (originally “clam bake” and “clam-bake") is a New England institution for baking clams and, quite often, giving political speeches. Corn, potatoes, onions and carrots are often served at clambakes; other seafood such as lobster and crabs can be served, as well as sausages and barbecued meats.

The “clam bake” is cited in print from at least 1829 and appears to have started in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.


Wikipedia: New England clam bake
The New England Clam Bake is a traditional method of cooking foods, especially seafood such as lobster, mussels, crabs, clams, and quahogs. The seafood is often supplemented by sausages, potatoes, onions, carrots, corn on the cob, etc. Clam bakes are usually held on festive occasions along the coast of New England.

Method
A typical clam bake begins with gathering seaweed at the shoreline; seaweed is an important adjunct to cooking the food. To keep the seaweed fresh, it is necessary to have a container large enough to hold both the seaweed and a fair amount of sea water.

Also important are several round medium-sized stones, or sometimes cannon balls, which are heated in the fire and used to re-radiate heat during the cooking process.

Lastly, like most other methods of steaming, a cover is necessary to allow the trapped heat and steam to thoroughly cook the food. Canvas tarps or potato sacks soaked in sea water are often used for this purpose.

Once the stones and seaweed have been collected, a fire pit is prepared. Some prefer to simply start a fire within the pit, while others line the edges with flat stones to provide support for a metal grill on which the stones may be placed; others prefer to dig a pit dug out on the beach so that the food may “bake” under the sand.

The stones used for cooking are then placed in the center of the pit and a wood fire is started, although the exact method of heating the stones varies. The fire must burn until the stones are glowing hot. Care must be taken to ensure that the fire will burn out shortly after this optimal cooking temperature is achieved. The ashes are then swept off the stones and raked between them to form an insulating “bed”. A layer of wet seaweed is place over the stones, followed by traditional regional foods such as clams, mussels, quahogs, and lobsters. Side dishes usually include potatoes, corn on the cob, linguiƧa sausages, carrots, and onions. Alternating layers of seaweed and food are piled on top and the entire mound is covered with canvas that has been drenched in sea water to seal in the heat and prevent the canvas from burning. (Some may prefer to use beer to soak the canvas, but it is unlikely to have any effect whatever on the cooked food.) The food is allowed to steam for several hours.

Since many locales outlaw building fires on beaches, most people cook this dish in a large pot. This is known as a New England Clam Boil. There are some caterers that specialize in clam bakes on the beach.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
clambake
U.S.
A baking, Indian-fashion, upon hot stones, of a mass of clams (often overlaid with layers of potatoes, Indian corn, fish, etc.); a favourite feature of pic-nic excursions to the sea-shore in U.S.; hence applied to the pic-nic party itself;
1835 Vade Mecum (Phila.) 5 Sept. 2/1 A Clam Bake—Our curiousity [sic] has been gratified, as to the nature of the festival understood by this term.
1848-60 BARTLETT Dict. Amer., Clam-bake. At a grand political mass-meeting in favour of Gen. Harrison on the 4th of July 1840, nearly 10,000 persons assembled in Rhode Island, for whom a clam-bake and chowder were prepared.
1883 Pall Mall G. 24 Sept. 12/1 At a recent..festival in Connecticut a gigantic clambake was cooked which was 25 ft. long and 10 ft. wide, and consisted of 2,000 ears of corn, 600 pounds of lobster, 600 pounds of fish, 1,000 chickens, innumerable oysters and clams, two barrels of sweet potatoes and two of the ordinary kind, and the whole topped off with two immense plum puddings and 150 water melons.
1887 Ibid. 17 June 5/2 A clam bake is an institution indigenous to this soil. Long before Puritans..found out its savour, the red man..indulged in clam bakes.
1945 AUDEN Coll. Poetry 134 That caged rebuked question Occasionally let out at clambakes or College reunions.
1962 Times 6 Apr. 7/1 Dig razor clams for an outdoor clambake.

15 August 1829, Providence (RI) Patriot, pg. 2:
Messrs. Burges and Pearce are carrying the war into the enemy’s country, as is evident from the Tiverton clam-bake, got up by them to favor their political intrigues.

19 August 1829, Providence (RI_ Patriot, pg. 2:
Mr. Burges’ Clam-Bake Speech. (...) Even it was said that some stomachs present, strong enough to digest “unbaked clams,” fairly nauseated at the gross and vulgar abuse that was lavished upon some of our respectable citizens.

11 August 1830, Providence (RI) Patriot, pg. 2:
A CLAM BAKE. On Saturday last, having turned the key on the world, the flesh, and the devil, we deliberately walked down stairs, jumped into a boat, and in a few minutes, with fifteen or twenty friends, were landed on FIeld’s Point. This pleasant spot is about two miles below the town, and is a most commodious retreat for baking, broiling and stewing clams, cohogs, oysters, sculpins, and other animals which may be abstracted from the briny deep, according tothe statute in such cases made and provided. On the south side of the point is a bold promontory, on which, in the last war, the Providence lawyers undertook to shovel up a fortification, which, happily for those who might have been behind it, was never put in requisition. On the north side, there has been erected a neat little hut, which serves the purpose of a bar-room, (on the agrarian principle) and a shelter for the necessaries, and goods and chattels, of a clam baker; and scattered here and there, are several trees, of handsome growth, affording a pleasant shade. This point appears to be favored with a continual sea-breeze, which renders it very cool and agreeable.

Soon after our arrival, the clams were thrown together on the heated stones, and covered with a layer of sea-weed; then was put in a layer of green corn, with the husks on—(the best possible way of boiling corn)—and then another covering of sea-weed, which imparted a delicious saline flavor to the corn, and kept in he steam to do its work among the provisions underneath. Meanwhile the incipient cravings of the appetite were gratified by mealy crackers and stinging old cheese and washed down with lemonade, made of Sicily lemons, havana sugar, and water from the north side of the well, stirred up in a new bass-wood pail. It was at length announced that the clams were ready, and each one of the company providing himself with a platter, some melted butter and pepper, and a fork, squatted by the heap, while the smoking sea-weed was removed. First came thecorn—a most delicious article from the Asylum farm—and then the clams, who lay huddled together with their mouths wide open, saying, as plainly as clams could say, Do, for heaven’s sake, take us out! Sweltering with heat, and panting for breath as they were, they put us directly in mind of the old couplet—

“The sun’s perpendicular heat
Illumines the depths of the sea,
And the fishes beginning to sweat
Cry, D--n it! how hot we shall be.”

The little sufferers were taken leisurely out. SOme of the company, before eating, would collect a large bunch of the meats—as we used to do in the western country with out butternut meats—and swallow a dozen at a time. Others, more impatient, would take the little clam by the ears, dip him in the butter and pepper, and swallow him recking from the shell. THen an ear of the sweet corn, stripped of its green husks, and rolled in the melted butter, would relish gloriously—even yet it makes our mouth water. Such clams as could not be eaten, then, were collected, opened, put into a large pot, with sculpins, pork, onions, potatoes, pepper, butter, crackers, and water, and left to boil into a chowder for tea. This was not relished so keenly, as the edge of our appetites had been blunted by the first feast. Just as the sun was throwing his last red rays over the landscape, while the windows on the opposite shore were glowing with a deep crimson, and the waters of the bay shone like an amethyst, we set sail from the Point on our return. Great credit is due to Capt. Nathaniel Pierce and Capt. John Gladding, for their efficiency in superintending the affair, and some to the company for their adroitness in eating, and their appreciation of the good things of the sea.

8 June 1833, Providence (RI) Patriot, pg. 3 ad:
parties who may come to the shore for a clam bake or chowder may be supplied with any utensils, or provisions, or help, at the Pavilion.

29 September 1834, New Bedford (MA) Gazette, pg. 2:
The bill of fare consisted chiefly of chowder and hot coffee, and from what we can learn, there has not been such a feast in this vicinity since the memorable “Clam Bake in Blacknier’s woods.”

5 October 1835, New Bedford (MA) Gazette, pg. 2:
NOAH’S DESCRIPTION OF A CLAMBAKE
“A rustic feast on the sea-shore, under the cedar trees; a sort of pic nic, or West India marooning party, where every one is free and joyous and perfectly degage.
("Noah" was a Boston newspaper editor—ed.)

9 May 1872, New York (NY) Times, “Trotting at Fleetwood Park,” pg. 1:
("Clambake" is the name of a horse—ed.)

16 September 1875, New York (NY) Times, pg. 4:
POLITICS AND CLAMS.
It must puzzle the inhabitants of other continents who take any interest in our institutions to account for the apparently intimate relationship between politics and clams. Not that we would have the foreign reader infer that all politics are immediately conencted with that shell-fish. There are localities where this is impossible. The prairies of the boundless West, as the dwellers of the region euphemistically term a certain section of our country, are destitute of the clam-bed and, necessarily, of the political clam-feast. The provender consumed at party gatherings in the West and South-west, unless furnished by the casual inn-keeper, is generically known as barbecue. A barbecue includes an infinite variety of victual, but the main part, of course, is the carcasses of sheep, pigs, or even oxen, roasted whole. hence the name “barbecue.” A Southern barbecue is no mean occasion; and at one of these feasts the generous Southern hospitality finds expression in masses of savory and toothsome viands that might tempt the palate of an anchorite. The Kentuckian may tickle his epicurean fancy with barcued hog, or the Illinoisan regale himself with oxen roasted whole and decorated with the flag of our country, while toasts and politics go round; but there are no clams for them. This strange feast, a relic of aboriginal days, is reserved for the people who live on the border of the North Atlantic.

There are two distinct varieties of political clam-feeding—the chowder and the clam-bake. The first of tehse has, of late years, been given up to the cities; the other is a more truly rural festival. In New-York, the political clam-chowder excursion has partly succeeded the old-time “target shoot,” with which it was once combined. The Dennis O’Dennis Association, for example, keenly alive to the necessity of electing to some office the gentleman whose name is borne upon their social banners, hire several of those ancient omnibuses which look now so very queer when seen on the streets. These venerable stages are covered with signs bearing the proud title of the Dennis O’Dennis Association; they are decorated with Chinese lanterns, drawn by spanking eight-horse teams, and filled with enthusiastic connoisseurs of politics and clams. The vehicles, msucial with sleigh-bells and brass bands, parade the streets, and convey the association to some point whence they reach the scene of the chowder-making. When there, Dennis O’Dennis, duty filled with pride, clams, and other good things, makes a speech, His friends and supporters, to whome he stands as a sort of political god-father, cheer and ask fro more. Then certain gentlemen of the Dennis O’Dennis ward—whatever that may be—make other speeches. When mellow with chowder and enthusiasm, the association go home merrily, making the streets of New-York very musical as they wind back and are lost in the dim recesses of Mackerelville or Cow Bay. Nor does it detract from the enjoyment of the testive company to know that the total cost of the entertainment is charged to the account of Mr. O’Dennis’ campaign expenses.

Very different from this is the polticcal clam-bake of New-England. Not that the chowder, by itself, is to be despised. So great a statesman as DANIEL WEBSTER did not think it beneath his dignity to give instructions in the art of chowder-making, and his recipe for concocting that noble dish is, we venture to say, quite as well known in Massachusetts as his famous speech on Bunker Hill. But the political gatherings on the shores of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, at which the clam is baked and eaten, is broader, freer, and more generous than the petty club-feasts of New-York Democratic politicians. Speakers and voters, with wives and children, are gathered in from great distances. The superheated stones on the sea beach, after due preparation, are heaped with layers of green corn, sweet potatoes, chickens, sucking pigs, and various other products of farm and garden; but the solid substratum of all is the clam—hard-shelled, blue in color, indigestible, and meditative as to his nativity and ultimate destiny. Over this mass is spread damp seaweed to produce steam, and over all is fixed a canvas cover. When the heap is cooked and disinterred, the orgies begin. And when hunger is more than appeased, and everybody is full, the band begins to play. After that the orators make speeches; and as it was for this that the clam-bake was invented, all that has gone before is but a mere overture.

it is thought that the feast of clams is specially necessary to a Summer political campaign. In New-England, people travel many miles to get at the sea and a political clam-bake. In New-Hampshire, where the want of an outlet was severely felt, special provision was made for this very purpose by allowing the Granite State a narrow passage to the sea between Maine and Massachusetts. A glance at the map will show that this curious concession was made for the purpose of that institution for which every son of WEBSTER’S State is ready to die—the clam-bake of domestic politics. A comic poet has remarked of the clam that its case is exceedingly hard. Torn from its silent bed to disturb the stomach of a noisy politician, there seems to be some mysterious law of compensation by which such extremes are brought together. Noise and silence, activity and calm—never were mopre diverse qualities combined than when the politician swallows the clam. But hard as is the case of this much-sought-for bivalve, the problem of its real relation to American politics is still harder of solution. How far nations and races are affected by their diet we are just beginning to learn. How far the clam enters into questions of protective tariff, contraction, and human liberty, we may in time discover.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Wednesday, December 31, 2008 • Permalink