Unlocking the mystery of a New England clambake

Take mounds of clams in the shell, sweet corn in the husks, and lobsters turning from greenish-black to bright red - and you have the essentials of a New England clambake.

Cooked slowly over seaweed and a fire on the rocks, these native foods and the combination of smoke, steam, and salt will produce an exotic blend of flavors and tastes.

It may seem somewhat complicated or magical to some people, but to me, the only real mystery about a clambake is why it isn't done more often.

Once a mainstay of New England social fare, the bake went into something of an eclipse for many years and only now is enjoying a modest revival.

One reason for the comeback is that this seemingly difficult meal has been simplified through modern innovation and human ingenuity.

Clambakes, as such, can now be prepared atop a home range as well as the old-fashioned way - in a pit at the beach or in a backyard.

The variations on this theme are endless and, while the results are not identical, they are close enough to give us a taste of this ''shellfish barbecue ,'' as one connoisseur has called it.

If you're intrigued enough to try a bake, one piece of good advice is to start simple. Keep in mind that the food is cooked by steam and flavored by smoke and seaweed.

Here is the simplest variation: a steamed feast prepared atop the stove.

The major utensil is a clam or vegetable steamer. I use a spaghetti cooker. Use seawater or lightly salted tap water in the bottom of the steamer, along with seaweed collected at the beach or bought from a local seafood store.

If neither is handy, the dried seaweed sold in many Oriental stores will suffice. A few stalks of celery will help the flavoring.

Layer the food in the top of the steamer. Steamer clams, corn on the cob (husked, with one layer of leaves left on for taste), white or sweet potatoes in their skins, and small white onions are favorites.

Hot dogs or a spicy sausage such as chorico, peeled hard-boiled eggs, and chicken, which might be broiled or grilled first to add flavor, are some other ideas.

A good rule of thumb is that the bake is done when the potatoes are. Put a white potato at the very top of the food and check it after 35 minutes, and every 10 minutes thereafter.

The food in an outdoor bake is cooked by the steam from the soaking-wet seaweed thrown over very hot rocks.

A professional bakemaster would use cast-iron balls or a heavy iron plate instead of rocks, because they are reusable. Rocks, on the other hand, cannot be reused, since the heat changes their molecular structure.

To keep steam from escaping, a tarp or canvas over the food is anchored down with rocks. Sometimes the canvas will billow like a sail filled with seawater steam.

If you're doing a bake in your backyard, you don't need to dig a pit, as interesting as that sounds. Instead, you can use a small patch of bare ground, a concrete slab, or a driveway if it's far enough away from the house. Next comes the crib, which consists of logs, branches, 2-by-4s, slabs, or whatever you choose, laid out in the style of a log cabin, with the rocks placed in positions where they will absorb the most heat.

Rocks absorb and release heat slowly, which is what you want in a bake. So the idea is to find rocks the size of a softball or even a football and get them as hot as possible before covering them with seaweed.

Estimate the number of rocks you need, depending on the amount of food you have, the size of your party, etc. An 8-by-12-foot crib covered with hot rocks can cook enough food to feed 300 people.

Decrease the size of your crib accordingly, but be aware that it is better to have too much heat than too little.

Start by dousing the crib with a commercial charcoal lighter. It will take up to two hours to get the rocks good and hot and another hour to cook the food. Although the process takes time, it is relatively foolproof.

Build the crib ahead of time, even the day before, to give yourself more time on the day of the bake for other preparations. If you can, assign everyone on the guest list a role in the preparations.

It's not particularly messy, and people like to be involved in the bake itself while they are sipping lemonade and talking with other guests.

The rocks are ready when a teaspoon of water dropped on one of them instantly sizzles into steam. If the rock bed is not hot enough, you'll have to increase cooking time accordingly. But the bake itself, and the taste of the food, will not be affected.

Seaweed is one of the most important ingredients - without it there's no bake. The kind of seaweed New England bakemasters prefer is called rockweed. It is similar to most seaweed except that it contains more seawater and therefore dries out more slowly.

Rockweed stems are round and rubbery and contain globules the size of grapes which contain seawater. The globules burst under the heat and provide steam.

If you can find rockweed near where you live, all well and good. But if not, there are alternatives. You might be able to buy it from the store where you buy your seafood. Or you can try using plain seaweed and keep dousing it with water as it dries out.

Once the seaweed is in place, you are ready for the food. Any food that can be steamed can go into a bake.

Here are some of the favorites to go in the bake and some ideas for refreshments and dessert.

Seafood: clams, guahogs, lobsters, fresh fish.

Meat: chicken (parboiled), sausage, hot dogs.

Vegetables: corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes (delicious), onions.

Miscellaneous: hard-boiled eggs, fish stuffing.

Refreshments: soft drinks, lemonade.

Dessert: ice cold watermelon.

If all is done correctly, baking time is one hour. Why it takes exactly 60 minutes is one of nature's mysteries. For one thing, not all food cooks at the same rate.

Clams - which can be steamed in a flat 5 minutes - would seem to be done far ahead of white potatoes, which take up to 45 minutes of boiling.

One way to get around irregular timing is by putting the food on the seaweed in the order of how long it takes to cook.

Potatoes would go on first, followed by peeled onions - which taste wonderful , by the way, when packed with the fish in paper sandwich bags, where they will share flavors.

Such other delicacies as the clams and corn on the cob, partly husked, would go last.

This would seem to make sense, except that bakemasters never do it that way. They put the clams on first so the juices do not fall on the other foods, but on the seaweed, keeping it moist, and adding the wonderful clam flavor to the steam which permeates the whole bake. Finally, a single representative potato goes on top of the other food to act as a barometer. Everything will be done when that potato is.

The entire bake is then covered with a tarp to keep in the smoke and steam, and the tarp is hosed down every now and then to make it more effective and keep it from burning.

One man who is on intimate terms with clambakes is Chris Heisler, a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island, who teaches workshops every summer on how to prepare a clambake.

Like most other bakemasters, Mr. Heisler will point out that the only real nemesis of a bake is the weather. You just can't get a fire going in a cloudburst. Yet, he has put on more than 50 bakes and has never had a washout or a failure.

Heisler is that greatest of converts. He came out of the Midwest, discovered seafood, and now will eat almost anything that comes out of the sea. He gets most of that food working from his backyard in Matunuck, R.I.

Heisler says his great contribution to the clambake was the introduction of the mussel, which he says his guests and students like more than the clams.

He cautions, though, that mussels require scrubbing and removal of their whiskers before they are cooked, and that many contain a small crab for which most of the public does not share his liking.

He starts off with little-necks on the half shell, chowder, and clam cakes, even before he gets to the steamers.

At his summer seminars on the clambake, students work all day to put together a bake and then settle down to eat their schoolwork. Probably Heisler's biggest message, the one he tells all the time, is: Try it. Don't make a clambake into something monumental that you never get around to doing. Make it simple, make it old-fashioned, but make it.

Some people consider chowder a traditional dish at a clambake and it can be made a day ahead of the bake to give it time for the flavors to blend.

Manhattan clam chowder is red and New England chowder is creamy, but this ''Rhode Island'' chowder is semitransparent and a favorite of Professor Heisler.

Rhode Island Chowder 1/4 pound salt pork, diced 1 1/4 cups onions, chopped 1 quart clam juice 1 quart potatoes 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1 quart clams, freshly ground 1 1/4 cups milk

Fry salt pork until crisp and remove,then fry onions in fat until transparent. Add clam juice and potatoes and cook until tender.

Add pepper and chopped clams and bring to a boil.

Add some water until the level of salt agrees with your taste. Add milk, but do not boil. Sprinkle bits of fried salt pork on top. Serves 12. Clam Stuffing

For each of the past 58 years, the Massasoit Hook and Ladder Company of Warren, R.I., has put on one of the state's largest bakes. Of all the food available at those bakes, the solid favorite is a clam stuffing created years ago and made only this one time every year by the firefighters. Bakemaster Bob Pare has listed his ingredients, although those who want to try it will need their own judgment on amounts. Crackers, Pilot preferred Salt pork Onions Celery Quahogs or clams Juice Eggs, beaten slightly Milk Butter Salt, pepper, poultry seasoning

Grind up everything and mix it together. Put into baking pans covered by aluminum foil and place in bake with the rest of the food.

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