Clambakes, boils and Smead-fueled perfection

I’ve always had an irksomely obsessive thing for the idea of eating and drinking whatever the local specialty happens to be. Urban or rural, anywhere I’ve ever been, I always want to be eating the most traditional and typical meal you can get, while washing it down with a version of what your grandparents would have thought you should have been drinking — even if that actually kinda sucks compared with modern offerings.

So for my 50th birthday this year I came back to Chatham, Cape Cod, where I’d spent a decade of happy summers as a kid, and plenty of off-season broke-ass college weekends on the cheap, to try and organize one thing I always wanted, but never quite managed to get — a proper New England clambake, and this time, after this last horrid year, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

The process itself is simple enough, you dig a hole and build a fire in it, get it nice and hot, put something that can retain heat into the fire, then bury it in sand or earth for hours along with whatever you want to cook. A version of this is done all over the globe — Hawai’ians call it Kalua, Kiwis call it a Hagni, American Southerners call it ‘Pit BBQ’, for Mexicans it’s Pibil. But in New England it’s a “clambake” or a “Boil”, and it’s a unique iteration of one of the oldest cooking methods in the world. On Cape Cod the guys to call for this are Clambakes, Etc. and their expert bossman Jason Maguire who makes sure it all goes down smoothly. But when Jason wants it to work perfectly, the guy HE calls is Ken “Hammer” Smead.

Ken is a good-natured mountain of a guy, with a red face, a bushy beard and a chest like a goddamn tree trunk. He has ink down both arms — Thor’s hammer Mjollnir, the names of his seven children tattooed in his own hand — and lively eyes that both engage and gently apprise simultaneously. He played and coached American football in Ireland and you’d be happy to have him either toasting your health in a bar or watching your back in a scrap. He’s cooked in Massachusetts restaurants since he was 14, manning the grill station, tending the pit, whatever the sweaty order of the day happens to be. When not at a griddle or working a cooking fire, he works across the bridge at Trego, the same Wareham, MA., foundry in which his grandfather and namesake smelted metal a lifetime ago. The man is tethered to flame — a good trait for a pitmaster of any kind. Ken and his wife Tara own and live on a small working farm in Bridgewater where they raise ducks, geese, goats, rabbits and cows and barter with their neighbors for a lot of what they can’t grow. They make soap from animal fat and donate the balance of the proceeds to causes benefiting military veterans. They’re not self-sufficient and they don’t live off their land, but they get pretty close for 21st century Massachusetts.

Smead roots run deep into the sand, loamy soil, clay and silt of Massachusetts Bay. His people have been here forever, but they’re not the Goulds or the Nickersons — don’t expect any parks to be named after them. There were Smeads on pilgrim ship manifests, Smead minutemen fought at Lexington, a Smead artilleryman helped kick Lee’s ass at Mechanicsville — I bet he knew fire, too. They are as much a part of the local ecosystem as the Cape’s cranberry bogs, scrub pine-surrounded kettle ponds and brackish salt marshes. If from the air the Cape looks like an arm curling into a muscle, the Smeads are an intrinsic part of its sinew and always have been. Which is appropriate, because the style of Boil he overseas is as close to the specified expression of the ‘bounty of the local’ as you can get. You’d probably get “hmm… ” and a raised Yankee eyebrow if you called it ‘New England terroir’, but that’s what it is. Sea-based though, so perhaps ‘meroir’ instead.

Here’s how he does it: once he’s found a beach with permissive fire safety rules, Ken first digs a shallow pit in the sand (not too close to the water but not up by the perpetually dry sand either) about a foot deep and a yard and a half wide or so. Then he starts a bonfire, driftwood to begin with, but then he adds standard square wood-slatted shipping pallets, one at a time, letting them cook off and create that ‘low and slow’ underfire that you need for the boil just as much as you would for barbequing a whole hog. Once it’s going strong, he adds 25-pound iron ingots with rebar handles that he custom forged at Trego (and which he tosses around like they were baseballs). I knew that other cultures use rocks to absorb and radiate the heat of the fire, so I asked him why he didn’t. “Well”, he told me patiently, “a lot of our rocks are porous and have air bubbles, so sometimes when they’re heated, you know, they explode”, [Long pause] “Which isn’t so good”. A long time ago, the waters off of the Cape saw over a hundred years of consistent piracy and naval engagements and when Ken started pitmastering Boils, the old timers used 18th and 19th century cannonballs that came up in trawling nets or washed in on Cape beaches after Nor’easters to fuel their pits. “But”, he confided, “while they heat up really well, they’re heavy as heck and really hard to carry after they’ve been in the fire for a day.” I’m sure. Once the pallets have cooked down — he usually goes through six or seven — the ingots go in and the pit is covered up with sand. While the firehole does its subterranean percolation thing, the food is prepped. The ingredients are simple, but entirely perfect for a summer beach dinner. Mesh waxed string oyster bags hold soft shell long-neck clams from the tidal flats (called steamers) and tiny sweet local mussels; early season corn ears just picked and shucked also feature, as do western Massachusetts mini purple potatoes married with links of spicy Linguiça sausage from Provincetown. The lobsters aren’t fresh — they’re fresh off the boat; still alive on the beach, and in the waters offshore hours earlier. Everything is from the same Massachusetts ‘food shed’ — from the proteins to the produce. The bags go in large, thick smooth wooden trays, almost shiny and gently rounded from steam and years of use. After a few hours, and a couple of bowls of their award-winning, shellfish stock-based, exceptionally creamy, well-sherryied and entirely irresistible clam chowder, the pit is dug up and the trays put gently on top of the smoldering ash and glowing ingots. Once settled, they’re covered with wet dulse and slimyslick leathery kelp still crawling with little fiddler crabs and topped with moist canvas sacking cloth, creating not just steam, but presurized vapor infused with a briny seafunk. It doesn’t take long; Ken barely has time to clarify a few pounds of butter on the double burner camp stove in the truck and spoon it out into small containers. Old school plastic bibs, lobster crackers and metal shell bowls are passed around, second or third rounds of ice-cold Cape Cod Beach Blonde Ales are cracked, over-chilled glasses of Truro Vineyards rosé are sloshed out, children sneak another soda from the cooler under the noses of perhaps not quite so oblivious parents. We sit in the still-warmed sand, or at folding picnic tables, or on a lush, thick green lawn and pile our bamboo plates high as the Cape light and sea air works its magic. Fresh cold-water lobster — recently swimming — is really seldom bad, but when perfectly cooked, flavored in salt water kelpsteam and doused in clarified butter, its legitimately sublime. Does the ‘anchored in those waters, hyper-local, sand-to-sea’ nature of the Boil actually make for a tastier meal? Is a Fiorentina T-bone steak actually better cooked over tree cuttings from the vineyards on the same land where the cow lived and died and paired with the wine that those same vines grew? No friggin’ idea, but my sense is that there is some form of intangible alchemy that happens when all these things come together — not to mention when the whole process is overseen by a firmly planted, expertly experienced, sea-facing Smead. Maybe it’s just the convincing power of a good narrative but ultimately, who doesn’t love a good story…

The long June day wanes. Fast moving shoals of kids flit and dart by screaming delightedly as they play tag at sunset, or tentatively poke horseshoe crab exoskeletons before running away shrieking, or chase tongue-lolling dogs in looping circles on the cooling beach, or point and shout at the appearance of curious seals cruising by and checking us out in the fast running inshore current. Lifetime friends listen to my vibrant, silver-haired pop re-tell comfortable, well-worn stories to the soundtrack of fond, tipsy laughter. The sinking sun dropping over the landward side turns Monomoy Island and Chatham’s famous sand bars coral pink against the stubborn brightness of the fading pale blue of a clear, slow-fading, early summer sky. Offset against the almost fluorescent green of the beachgrass, sugar egg white meringue white of the oceanside Cape sand and the nautically diffused twilight is slightly surrealist and eye-mistingly lovely — both timelessly eternal and heartbreakingly fleeting at once.

Kenny builds a second driftwood fire and the ‘Smores kits are broken out for the kids as he quickly and efficiently packs up and loads the Clambakes, etc. truck with his gear (but not before a custom-built, hand pushed lawnmower looking contraption with powerful magnets instead of blades is rolled over the first fire pit to suck the nails from the packing pallets up off the beach). Candles bloom in hurricane lamps, electric fairy-lights with small orange Edison bulbs and smoky citronella tiki torches are lit, Uncles Mike and Daves I and II get “classic” tunes of all variety cranking on wireless speakers, and with a wave of a powerful arm Kenny rumbles off in his truck; back to home on the mainland and family and a farm and the fire and the soil and the sea. Right where he and his people have always been, cooking exactly the right thing to eat at that exact specific moment. To do a proper New England boil right takes a bit of time and no small amount of effort, expense and expertise, but some traditions are worth the hassle and live up to your expectations. This is one of them.

Clambakes, etc., a part of Oysterville Fish co., one of the best wholesale and retail Seafood markets on the Cape, will do Clambakes for you well into the autumn or probably even later, if you’re crazy enough to ask them.

Cape Cod Beach Blonde Ale is thankfully available anywhere and everywhere on the Cape, Truro Vineyards makes a wide range of unique local wines, including their easy-drinkin’ rosé which I’ve found pairs well with meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, sand, mornings and breathing.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, I’ve worked for UN Peacekeeping all over the world for over 20 years. I write about eating and drinking in NY whenever I can.