The clambake ­– a flexible tradition

Although the classic clambake takes place in a pit covered by seaweed, a perfectly acceptable alternative can be done in a good sized stockpot. Photo by Arnold Gatilano

October/November 2022

By Jean Kerr

Clambakes are one of my favorite New England traditions. I have hosted and catered them for going on 40 years now, and I never tire of the ritual. Digging the pit for the fire, partially shucking the local late summer corn, collecting rockweed to steam everything to perfection. And it tends to be a group effort – another benefit!

This is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the 1800s when public clambakes had great appeal. Esteemed food historian Sandy Oliver says in her excellent book Saltwater Foodways, “Many large clambake pavilions were built after the middle of the century along the southern New England coast, especially near steamer or trolly lines. She also notes that a “monster clambake” was held in 1864 near the mouth of Quiambaug Cove, a little east of Mystic, Connecticut, and was attended by some 1,000 people.

Once fall rolls around, the weather isn’t always conducive to outdoor gatherings. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a mini-clambake right in your kitchen. Although the price of lobster has fluctuated wildly this year the supply is pretty reliable in the early fall and the demand lessens after the height of the tourist season.

My first choice is an enameled clam or lobster pot, but any large stockpot that will hold all your ingredients will do the trick. I prefer soft-shelled lobsters as they are easier for your guests to handle. Layering the ingredients with rockweed is traditional but not always practical. Still, seawater’s salinity can be approximated by adding about 1/3 cup of sea salt to a gallon of spring water and dissolving it completely.

We also gather clean, wet rockweed (also known as sea wrack) for layering between ingredients. This is not necessary, but there’s a certain something about the taste of the food when the rockweed steams everything. It’s also traditional. You could also separate layers using parchment paper or crumpled foil. You’re just looking for a way to create loose steaming layers. But you can just layer the ingredients in succession.

Bear in mind that this process is more of an art than a science. Use good ingredients, cook them properly, and you can’t go wrong.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor Magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.


Stovetop clambake


  • 6 medium waxy/thin-skinned potatoes like Maine yellow or Yukon golds
  • 6 1 1/4-pound lobsters
  • 6 ears of fresh corn in the husk
  • *Discard any clams that are broken or already opened. (I tie them in several loose cheesecloth bags to make them easier to remove from the pot.)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves


Scrub the potatoes and wrap each in foil.

Remove the outer leaves from each ear of corn. Pull back remaining husk to remove silk. Pull up the remaining leaves to create a loose cover.

Place a layer of rockweed (if using) on the bottom of the pot, add salted water, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Bring up to boiling/steaming. (You should have about 3 inches of water in the bottom of the pot.)

Add the foil-wrapped potatoes, cover the pot, and steam for 5-7 minutes.

Add another layer of rockweed and add lobsters. After the pot comes back to steaming, cook lobsters for another 8 minutes until they start to turn bright red.

Cover with another layer of weed and add corn. Bring back to steaming and cook for 5 minutes.

Finish with a final layer of rockweed and add clams. Cover the pot and cook just until clams open. Discard any that do not open.

Drain well and serve everything on a sheet pan lined with a few clean dishcloths. Open the cheesecloth bags and spread everything out. Serve with tongs. Offer lemon wedges and melted butter for serving.

* A recent ruling in a Maine court made rockweed growing on someone’s intertidal land private property. If you’re going to gather, make sure you harvest from a public place or get permission from the landowner.