Happy as a Clambake

Photo Credit: Rachel Guaraldi

The Allen’s Neck Quaker Meeting House clambake always happens on the third Thursday of every August, as it has for the last 126 years. Late summer on coastal Massachusetts: fireflies blinking over hayfields high and ready for second cutting; phosphorescence so filling the saltmarshes at night that you leave trails of light when you swim.

The clambake also comes a couple days before our neighborhood’s annual contra dance, when the seven-person McMahon family, a few miles from my family’s house, invites a fiddler, pianist, and ‘caller’ to their barn. Contra dancing is a centuries-old American folk tradition. Couples form long lines and dance to fiddle or banjo music, usually in a barn or out under the stars. In the decades that the McMahons have organized the dance, everyone has learned all the patterns of weaving and turning, the do-si-dos, the allemande lefts, and the swings. Newcomers and guests to our neighborhood have little trouble finding their way through the songs, with the help of the caller yelling instructions over the fiddle and with other dancers guiding them in the right direction.

Before the dancing commences, a man driving a horse-cart full of hay takes us on a winding country road that, in its two-mile loop, passes near a course of food groups: the edible-flower, herb, and greens farm; the Hereford cattle farm; the sugar beet farm; the heirloom tomato farm; and the sheep, chicken, goat, and pig farm, where I’d often leave money for sausages or lamb chops in the farmer’s freezer. This is what coastal Massachusetts farmland looks like, all packed into what used to be acres of dairy farms. Beets beside edible flowers beside sheep.

The site of the clambake is halfway down the horses’ route, under a grove of oak trees and wedged between two tumbledown stone walls that were there a hundred years before the clambake began. The Meeting House—complete with white-clapboard—is a quarter mile away from the site, beside a graveyard scattered with tilting, eighteenth-century tombstones. I used to walk by that graveyard after school on the way to visit my fifth-grade girlfriend, to whom I mostly gave woven bracelets, and, for months in spring, asked to go on walks to fields or skunk-cabbage-lined streams where I thought we might kiss but never did.

By the time the horses pass the site, the grass under the oaks is littered with hundreds of discarded clamshells, and the briny smell of seaweed-filtered smoke still lingers.

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Clambakes have occurred on coastal New England for a couple thousand years. Native American tribes living on the water’s edge baked seafood in ovens dug into the beach. The pit was then lined with fire-heated stones, and piled over with seaweed, into which went the clams, mussels, lobsters, and fish. When the Allen’s Neck clambake started in 1888, it was just a Sunday school picnic on the beach. Meeting members foraged for clams and caught mackerel to feed the group—an easy way to feed many people while the saltwater rivers, marshes, and tidal pools of southeastern Massachusetts were filled with shellfish.

Clambakes in Massachusetts today—authentic clambakes—don’t differ much in process from the nineteenth-century ones, or even the far older Wampanoag or Narragansett ones. It’s an all-day affair. Fire-hot stones; then the seaweed; and the wooden boxes filled with soft-shell clams, quahogs, corn, and sausages pushed into the mound. Just how many clams and sausages are needed for a Meeting are, thankfully, recorded in the clambake’s original instructions, which were penned in 1890 and which is currently framed and hanging in the Allen’s Neck Meeting House. For 500 guests and 125 workers (seaweed gatherers, shellfish rakers, fire builders, stone collectors, clam and corn shuckers, pie bakers, onion choppers, fishermen), a clambake requires:

22 bushels Clams
200 pounds Sausage
100 pounds Onions
75 pounds Fish Fillets
150 pounds Tripe
85 Pies
75 dozen sweet corn
50 pounds Butter
3 bushels Sweet Potatoes

The document also establishes some special requirements:

The clams must be culled and washed in the fresh sea water in a boat at Horseneck Beach.
The sweet corn must be fresh and sweet – harvested the day of the clambake.

The rockweed must be fresh and kept moist.
The last and important ingredient of all is to ask our dear Lord for good weather.

Much of the same ingredients are there today, though not so locally sourced. In the nineteenth century, Quaker Meeting members had quahog rakes and knew where to dig. These days, the clams and quahogs mostly come from Maine or the Canadian Maritimes. The sweet potatoes and watermelon come from nearby Fall River; the sweet corn comes from a farm couple miles down the road from the clambake. The butchery in nearby New Bedford—that old whaling capital—lost its supply of pickled tripe, so there’s about 230 pounds of sausage that no longer comes from nearby hog farms. Some people who’ve been going to the clambake for many years miss the tripe from long ago. “Bathing caps,” they called it. There’s fifty pounds of melted butter in pitchers. There’s always lemon meringue pie. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

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Photo: Rachel Guaraldi

All the community members have roles. One family, headed by the matriarch, goes to the Meeting House at 8am to start making the ‘dressing’—a lot like stuffing you’d see inside a baked turkey, but made with clam. A clambake lifer and his daughter bring a couple dozen loaves of brown bread. Before eating begins, there’s a moment of silence. Seven hundred people gather in a circle, close their eyes, bow their heads, and the minister of the congregation stands on one of the wooden picnic tables to say a prayer. The salty smoke from the seaweed drifts through the oak trees.

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The contra dance’s horses continue on their way, leaving site of the clambake, arriving at the McMahon’s barn to the sound of the fiddler warming up. Christmas lights hang between the trees. Inside the barn, fifty or so neighbors twirl and stomp; a caller sways back and forth, singing instructions. For a moment, the gap between present day and the past disappears. Eyes closed, it could be a warm summer night back in the 1890s, or even further back, in the late 1700s, when Americans first danced those patterns.

So much in the South Dartmouth has changed since I was young. The farmer who did the second-cutting of that late-August hay has passed away, as has the sugar beet farmer. The goat farmer has moved up to Maine. New houses have gone up, and my fifth-grade girlfriend’s family has moved away. There is a new generation of kids. The marsh where we used to rake oysters and quahogs has gone through spells of contamination, and is now depleted of shellfish.

Standing beside that mound of seaweed every year, I know that whatever changes in my life, the clambake will still be here. How strange these traditions can be, taking up such little time of the year. Just a few days in late summer—when the fireflies are out, and phosphorescence fill the marshes; when the summer is ripe and sweet like corn, and the hay is ready for its second cutting.

Ben Shattuck is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency.