Clam bakes (or as we in Cleveland spell it – “clambakes”) originated in New England, but Cleveland has taken the clambake and embraced it as its own fall tradition. Many restaurants advertise their clambakes in the Plain Dealer and online, but if you ask me the best clambakes are the ones thrown in someone’s backyard. A clambake is a traditional method of cooking seafood over an open fire pit on the beach. The seafood is often supplemented by sausages, chicken, potatoes, onions, carrots, corn on the cob, etc. The food is layered, with lots of vegetables like celery, parsnips, onions, peppers, corn husks, etc. and herbs as flavoring.
As Wikipedia states:
Clam bakes are more popular in Northeast Ohio than any other region of the United States outside of New England. (Source: October 2008). “Visit Cleveland“. Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau.) A typical clam bake in Northeast Ohio includes a dozen clams with a half chicken, sweet potatoes, corn, and other side dishes. Seaweed is not used and the clams, chicken, and sweet potatoes are all steamed together in a large pot.
My best friend and her family have a clambake every year, and my parents and I really look forward to it. Invitations go out in early September, and payment is due about a week ahead of the clambake (so that they can order the right amount from one of the many Cleveland catering companies that sell clambakes). The company they use is Quality Halls Meat Market in Olmsted Falls, but I have had good experience with Euclid Fish in Mentor as well.
The family works hard the day before rinsing the sand out of the clams and prepare them. Also, the seasoning and vegetables they use really add to the bake.
My friends assign everyone something to bring in the invitation, so it isn’t a financial hardship for them. I usually get asked to bring some German beer, but I was assigned appetizers this year. I made Trader Joe’s Parmesan Pastry Pups, which are essentially pigs in a blanket sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. They were a total hit. My mom made Barefoot Contessa’s Ham and Cheese in Puff Pastry, which were also delicious. My pastry pups disappeared, and Mom only had a few puff pastry pieces left over. Most of the salads and side dishes, on the other hand, went untouched because the clambakes were so filling.
They also offer a “chicken bake” alternative, because several people don’t like the taste of clams and two of the attendees are extremely allergic to shellfish. Since everything is boiled together in a pot, that means everything might be potentially life-threatening. As a result, they grill chicken breasts and make separate corn and sweet potatoes for the “chicken bakes.” It’s a lot more work, but it does work out in the end. They also try hard to keep the chicken bakes and clambakes separate.
Once it was determined that the pot contents were ready, the pot was removed from the burner and deconstructed. First, the seasoning vegetables were removed and set aside. Then the chickens were removed and browned in a large skillet over the same burner. In the meantime, the sweet potatoes and corn were transferred to serving platters and the clams were kept in the pot to stay warm. Everyone was encouraged to line up and help themselves.
There is always a bonfire roaring in the backyard, and folks congregate around the fire. There are also rousing games of corn hole and baseball in the backyard – and some years they blow off a cannon.
The family was sick this year, so the rest of us did our best to help and pull everything together. It takes a bit of work to put it all together, but when everyone gets together to enjoy the food and the company, it’s totally worth it. I deliberately selected the smallest chicken and sweet potato and only took a pat of potato salad, leaving the other sides alone, but was still completely stuffed afterward. No one went home hungry, and my dad left with a gallon of clam bouillon, which is his favorite part of the clambake.