Cape Cod Clambake

Traditional or reinvented, the clambake remains a coastal favorite.

It’s the quintessential Cape Cod meal, with colors, smells and tastes that resonate with summers at the beach and happy gatherings of friends and family.

The Cape Cod clambake brings together the best of the area’s seafood, fresh vegetables and savory sauces in a steaming combination that makes the mouth water at its mere mention … just-caught lobsters, clams, quahogs and fish steamed with corn, pearl onions and red potatoes and served with chilled coleslaw or watermelon.

For a long time, clambakes were day-long events, involving firepits dug into beach sands to heat ocean rocks, then layers of wet seaweed, lobsters, shellfish and vegetables, all covered with more wet seaweed and then sand. After hours of playing, sunning and swimming, hungry beach-goers would uncover the food and everyone feasted while sitting on beach towels.

What with open fire restrictions and creative innovations, the clambake has been forced out of the fire pit — but not off the Cape.

An old-fashioned-style clambake draws scores of people to the Chatham VFW. “People come from over the bridge just to eat here,” says Leslie Amara, a leader of the Cape Cod Fresh Clambakes held throughout the summer at the Chatham VFW. “They even stand in the rain. The food is so fresh—the fish are cooked the same day they’re caught. They bring the kids and they all have fun.”

Cooking with custom-made steam tanks the size of bath tubs, Chef Steve Nidweski is the conductor of the carefully timed symphony of seafood. He nods toward a crate of lobsters, clattering with the sound of shells and claws bumping as the crustaceans crawl over each other. “Nickerson’s Fish & Lobster provides the fish and lobsters. You know them? They’re right on the (Chatham) Fish Pier. They bring us fish just in from the boats. These lobsters are just out of the water. The steamers are sandless, purged in seawater. He’s one of only two dealers in the state that do that. You can’t get any better.”

As Nidweski bends to slip the bands from the lobsters’ claws, Amara sells tickets to a growing line of hungry customers. She has reservations for 102 adults. (Amara recommends reservations so enough seafood is on hand.) Once they’ve checked in, they sit at picnic tables covered with red-and-white gingham tablecloths. On the tables sit rolls of paper towels and plastic sand buckets for discarded shells. Diners come in clusters—a group of elderly couples; a family of parents, grandparents and four children who immediately dash off to the playground; and a clutch of 40-something friends, who tease Amara. “They were here last week,” she says.

Across the lawn, three musicians tune up their instruments. Salt Water Jazz is a trio led by Tim Sweeney of Orleans, who plays electric ukulele (yes, that’s right… electric ukulele), along with a drummer and a man on bass fiddle. They immediately launch into a string of upbeat standard songs like “All of Me” and, of course, “Old Cape Cod.” Soon, many of the diners are singing along as the servers dash from table to table with their meals.

The cooking area buzzes with synchronized action. After the lobsters are dumped into one steam tank, the vegetables go into the other. Steamers go into hot water and the lid comes off an immense pot of clam chowder. Once the lobsters are done, (continued from previous page) two cooks work as a team, one throwing the lobster onto the cutting board and the other cracking the shell with three solid thwacks with the flat side of a butcher knife. In the seconds it takes to crack the lobster, the first has reached into the other tank, pulled out an ear of corn, flipped it onto the plate and back to the tank for a netted sack of potatoes, kale and onion, tied together in a single serving. The lobster-cracker swiftly slits open the pouch and arranges the vegetables on the plate. On the other side of the cutting board, the server seizes the plate, grabs a cup of coleslaw nearby and dashes out to a waiting table. The whole process takes about 12 seconds.

After about 15 minutes of controlled frenzy, everyone has food and the cooks are catching their breath, joking with each other. “It’s fun for everyone,” says Nidweski. “We all have a good time.”