Savoring the Last Days of Summer
The summer clambake has always been a tradition in my family. Growing up on Cousins Island in Yarmouth, I don’t remember a summer season passing without the ritualistic day-long feast. Usually in the morning, my brother and dad and I would drive bare-footed and bathing suit-clad down the road to Madeleine Point, a local swimming cove. If it was low tide, it made our task of seaweed collecting quite easy. We’d pull the green strands from the exposed rocks they were fiercely attached to, and we’d fill coolers with the stuff and place it in the back of the car for the short trip home. If it was high tide, well then, we’d go swimming.
Back in the kitchen, my mom would be preparing the clams, which always need to be thoroughly scrubbed. And she’d take a few of them to make the clam broth in which you “clean” the steamers again at the table. And then there was the melted butter in little cups, which I remember carrying out precariously on trays to the lawn, if we were lucky, or the covered porch if it was a rainy day. She’d have already shopped, too, for the day’s fixings: the onions, potatoes, eggs, and corn that we piled on top of the fire to accompany the lobsters and clams.
A clambake is something that must be assembled with careful abandon. My dad always orchestrated the construction. First, the fire was built, the bed of seaweed laid. Then the potatoes and onions (still in the peels) were nestled into the seaweed, topped by corn, the mesh bags of clams, and eggs, still snug in the paper carton. Then, the lobsters, live but lethargic from sitting out of water for several hours in paper bags. We’d cover it all with more seaweed, and make an oven out of tinfoil, which was then weighted by an old rug. An hour and a half later, the pile of steaming food would be uncovered, ushered onto trays, and delivered to the table.
The feasts somehow always inspired copious amounts of laughter — cracking juice-filled lobsters in close proximity is generally good for a few laughs — and good story-telling. To get a word in you had to speak loudly and quickly, and you’d probably still be interrupted. Wine was poured, rolls passed, instructions given to lobster novices, and homemade blueberry pie — always blueberry pie — topped it off in the end. Friends, no matter how new, were treated as family, and many of them have since become honorary members.
The taste of the food is something I can conjure easily in my mind, even in the dead of a Maine winter. It tastes like the essence of Maine, smoky and salty, and like summer, too, pungent and fresh.
Last week we had just such a feast. But it was also a family first. We took our classic clambake and transported it to another family tradition: visiting Popham Beach. In celebration of my mother’s birthday, we rented a house just down the beach from Percy’s Store. On Saturday, our family gathered at the house. As we lit the fire, my brother had an impromptu idea: to move the picnic tables in the lawn down the path and onto the beach. So we did. The table was set and all was as it should have been: the seaweed (which my dad returned to Cousins Island to collect, ironically), the lobster, the clams, the corn (which has truly never tasted better), even the familiar faces — everything was in its place. And amidst the boats and waves, with the Georgetown cottages reflecting the setting sun, we ate, toes in the sand, laughing.