"It was a real nice clambake; we're awfully glad we came. The vittles we 'et were good, you bet; the company was the same." - Oscar Hammerstein in "Carousel"
The party was 30 years in the planning, but when Ralph and Janet Coleman finally set the date, it was a smash.The pair produced a "real nice clambake."
Native Ohioans, the Colemans talked about a family clambake for years. As the leaves began to turn each fall, the pair recalled the Cleveland neighborhood tradition.
"Our families would gather on a crisp autumn Saturday for horseshoes, volleyball and badminton - the things we did while we waited for the clams to steam," Ralph reminisced. "It was a time of family togetherness, but the clams made it into a lifetime memory."
Memories motivated the Colemans to replicate the Buckeye gathering, but the right cooking pot was as elusive as a clam in the Great Salt Lake.
"I've searched everywhere for a clam steamer like we used back home," Ralph lamented. "I went all over California, even to restaurant suppliers, and no one knew what I was talking about. They acted like I was speaking a foreign language."
A long-awaited return trip to Cleveland resolved the problem.
"It seemed like every store had a clambake display. After all the searching we'd done, we were amazed to see a steamer so available. Of course, we bought one," Janet explained, "then wondered why we hadn't thought to order one from Cleveland before."
Midwestern clambakes differ from the New England back-style boiled dinners. On the coast, lobster, mussels and clams are buried on a bed of coals with seaweed, corn on the cob, potatoes and seasonings.
In Ohio, a three-tiered steamer cooks over an open fire or a gas grill.
To prepare the clams, according to the Colemans, the shells must be thoroughly scrubbed. Clams are covered with a cold water and cornmeal mixture. Through ingestion of the cornmeal, interior gritty particles are removed from the shellfish. Soaking at least two hours or overnight allows completion of the procedure.
Then the layering begins.
The Colemans add a cup of water for each guest to the base of the steamer.
"We sneak in a pound of butter, too," Janet admitted.
Clams, four to six per person, line the second pot. The top pan is covered with husked corn, celery stalks, two whole chickens and six to eight sweet potatoes, the largest on top.
Cooking is timed by the top potato. When it is steamed tender, the whole pot is ready to serve.
Ralph admits the secret to the flavorful bake is the continuous basting.
"I draw the stock from the bottom spigot every 20 minutes or more, then pour it over the vegetables and clams," he explained.
Coleman shared another pointer for a successful bake.
"When you buy clams, they should be closed. They will open and shut during the cornmeal soak. If you find an open clam after the soak, force it shut. If it stays, go ahead and steam it. If it cracks open again, discard it because the clam is dead. The clams will open as they steam."
Open clams and a soft potato indicate the time's come for savoring the bake.
"There's nothing like a swallow of the rich, flavorful stock," Janet said. "It makes the waiting worth it."
Earthenware mugs steam with the broth while clams line platters. Janet bakes chicken and rolls separately to complement the shellfish.
The shellfish are the main course, but family time shared is the perfect complement to a "real, nice clambake."
I'm awfully glad I went.
Note: We found a clam steamer at Dean Restaurant Supply, 7000 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44103, 216-361-5587. The pot is $42.95 plus UPS shipping charge. Mail or phone orders will be accepted.
Clams, currently in season, are available at Albertson's, Dan's, Market Street Fish and Smith's. Littleneck, cockle, Manilla, steamer and cherrystone varieties can be purchased for $3.29 - $3.99 a pound. Market Street restaurants also feature a carry-out lobster-clambake through mid-November.
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