Gratitude you could really sink your teeth into

Every summer, usually on the Fourth of July, our little down-east Maine town would have the merchants' picnic. This was an old-time clambake whereby the storekeepers would say thanks to their customers for another year of prosperity. There's no such thing today; we don't have that kind of storekeeper, nor perhaps, I can say, that kind of town.

Our three grocers led off, and lesser shopkeepers joined them. Including those from rural areas and the islands. Our town's population was a couple thousand, so it was a considerable picnic. Come-one, come-all prevailed.

Noon was lunchtime. Just before that hour the Rev. Mr. James William Lawes Graham would step in front of the assembled townsfolk, assume a penitent posture, and invoke God's blessing.

He was pastor of the Congregational parish and ranking clergyman. He had a pulpit voice of great strength, so he could be heard, in the open air, clear across the True Farm fields, down the clam flats, and across the bay to Bustins Island, except that everybody on the island would be on the main for the picnic.

Reverend Graham would follow his invocation by reciting the Declaration of Independence from memory. Then it was time for the lobsters and clams.

Enough lobsters to feed the town were supplied at a discount by the Holbrook boys, who fished and had a lobster business. The clams were dug by Vic Coffin from the flats by the True Farm, where the merchants' picnic was held because the front field was level and made a diamond for the ball game. Any long fly ball could plop in the mud right where Vic dug clams. Vic made his living digging clams, which he shipped to Ipswich, Mass., to be sold as Ipswich clams. He'd hold back a few barrels for the merchants' picnic.

Ike Skillin was our official bakemaster, and he used the same manner as the Indians did on the same spot 5,000 years ago. Several days before the picnic, Ike and his helpers would gather round rocks and make a solid circle with them in a selected place on the beach, above the tide line.

The circle would be maybe 12 feet in diameter, and was slightly dished toward the center. At daybreak on the morning of the picnic, Ike and his helpers would kindle a fire in the middle of the circle. This was fed with dry maple firewood and shortly became a roaring inferno, heating the rocks. Every now and then a stick would be tossed into the flames, and about 10 o'clock the flames would be allowed to subside and the glowing wood to become embers and finally ashes. The rocks would stay hot for days.

Ike kept an eye on his watch. About 10:45, action began. Ashes were raked and swept from the hot rocks and a bed of wet rockweed (seaweed, to highlanders) was forked on to hiss and start steaming. This made a base for the lobsters, which were tossed by many hands to begin cooking.

Piled in place, the lobsters were then covered with more rockweed, and a square of sail canvas was drawn over all to hold in the steam. Ike saw that it was 11:15. Perfect! In 45 minutes he could shout "COME AND GET IT!"

Clams can be cooked with the lobsters on the hot rocks, but Ike had his own way. He'd made a steel tank that could hold several barrels of clams and mounted it on steel wheels with a steel tongue - nothing that could burn. When loaded with clams, it could be pulled by several men over its own fire, and when the clams were steamed, the same men could pull it off the fire for serving.

Lee Soule, who was our railway express agent, was official clam cook. After the clam rig was pulled from the fire, he removed the canvas cover that held down the steam on the lobsters. When he did this, a cloud of steam erupted, the piece of canvas flapped, and Lee seemed to be hurled backward to an early doom. His simulated plight horrified the town the first time, but it was afterward comical and put everyone in a happy mood for eats.

After this deception, Lee would select one clam from the tank with long-handled blacksmith tongs, blow on it until it was cool, open it, and survey the clam with the deep dignity of a sommelier. Then he'd eat it, and his rapturous approval indicated it was time for the whole town to eat.

Everybody got a lobster and a scoop of clams on a paper plate, except those who'd thought to bring soup plates. There was magnificence in seeing a whole town sitting or scootched in the mowed field by the ocean, intent on being thanked by their tradespeople. It left a good taste in your mouth.

In 1918, a curious deviation came to pass. It was wartime, and sugar was strictly rationed. Even if you had ration stamps, sugar was hard to find. As picnic day approached, the grocers had no sugar and were unable to find any. There would be no sweetening for the hot beverages of the holiday picnic!

But when the lobsters and clams had been served, and the tea and coffee were about to be decanted, piping hot from yet a third fire, Mellie Collins, the barber, stepped forward to ask the bakemaster if he'd mind a contribution of some sugar.

Mellie, he explained, had been buying sugar all during the war, when he could, but Mellie and his family didn't use sugar. Never touched the stuff. He kept buying sugar on a whim and had a pantry shelf loaded with it. If it would be all right, he'd like to pass about and offer folks some sugar. He'd brought a pine firkin of it, just in case.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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