Of Clams and Clam-bakes

Of Clams and Clam-bakes

O fantastical bivalve!
by Wilfred H. Munro

Boxes of clams at a clambake, 2003.
A clambake hosted by Pare Clambakes of Warren. (July 13, 2003).

The following excerpt was transcribed from pages 105-106 of Picturesque Rhode Island (1881).

The history of the clam-bake has never yet been written. To unfold in fitting terms its mysteries, to describe the successive steps through which perfection has at last been reached, requires a pen of more than ordinary ability. Frankly we confess ourselves to be incompetent to perform the task. Had Charles Lamb lived in this most favored land, his unequaled fancy might, perhaps, have done Justice to the fruitful theme. Had the gentle Elia been a Rhode Islander, the "succulent clam," rather than the "tender crackling," would have held the place of honor upon his never-to-be-forgotten page.

A little encyclopaedic information might not be out of place just here. Mya arenaria, is the scientific name of the common "long clam" of Narragansett Bay. The "long clam," or, as it is sometimes called, the "soft clam," must not be confounded with the quahaug. The latter is a very different creature. Scientific men call it Venus Mercenaria. Those who have not penetrated the secrets of its mechanism are often greatly puzzled when they attempt to extract it from its hard, round shell. All along the shores of the bay the myae are found. Thousands of bushels are dug each year, but the supply does not seem to diminish. The distinguishing feature of the clam is the "siphon." The American Cyclopaedia describes it thus: "The siphon is neither head nor tail, but a double retractile tube for respiratory and feeding purposes." This "siphon" is a perpetual joy to those unfamiliar with the bivalve. Not long ago a learned doctor of divinity from one of our Western States came to the shores of the Narragansett for a short visit. All his life he had sighed for an opportunity to "entrap a clam in its lair." At last he realized the object of his ambition. The "siphon" drew out his unbounded admiration. Upon its admirable adaptation of means to an end, he enlarged with eloquent tongue, and seemed never to weary in the expatiation. Hastening to the railway station, after a stay too brief for those who had enjoyed his genial society, he espied a basket of clams exposed for sale in front of a market. Never again could he hope to possess a more favorable opportunity for observing the "siphon." Stopping short in his walk, at the risk of losing his train, the grave and dignified divine tested for the last time with eager fingers its wonderful powers of contraction, then with visions of luscious myae dancing before his eyes, and their fragrant odors tantalizing his olfactory nerves, went sorrowfully back to the unromantic routine of his city life.

Engraving of Silver Spring, East Providence, 1881.
Silver Spring in East Providence was one of many resorts, specializing in clambakes and shore dinners, that lined the shores of Narragansett Bay in the mid- to late-1800s. (Picturesque Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro (1881)).

Upon nearly all the shores of New England the clam is found. Several times, in the early history of Massachusetts, the white settlers would have perished but for this lavish food-supply which nature had provided for them. From the Indians the English learned the way in which it should be cooked. Upon the shores of the Narragansett the "clam-bake" has gradually been brought to its state of perfection.

The modus operandi of a "bake" is as follows: In the first place a rude floor of stones is laid. Upon this floor a pile of ordinary "cord-wood" is thrown. The wood is set on fire and allowed to burn until the stones beneath begin to crack with the heat. The half-burned brands are then pulled away, and a thin layer of sea-weed—the ordinary "rock-weed" of the shore—is thrown upon the heated stones. (This first layer is not absolutely essential. It serves to prevent the lowest clams from being burned or discolored by the too great heat.) Next the clams are thrown upon the pile in a layer of uniform thickness, and another coating of "rock-weed" is placed over them. A piece of old canvas is spread over the whole (to keep in all the steam), and the fragrant pile is left to itself for about forty minutes. Then the "bake" is opened and the repast begins. Sometimes ears of green corn, baskets of potatoes and other vegetables, lobsters, fresh fish rolled in corn-husks, and various other edibles are deposited in the midst of the rock-weed. The steaming vapors from the clams permeate the whole mass, and impregnate everything with their rich odor. Many men would, any day, willingly leave the well-appointed table of the "Narragansett Hotel" to partake of such a feast. The relish for it seems to increase rather than to diminish, as it becomes more familiar.

Ad for the Narragansett Hotel, 1881.
The Narragansett Hotel in Providence was one of Rhode Island's swankiest at the time Munro was writing. (Picturesque Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro (1881)).

Born in Bristol in 1849, historian Wilfred Harold Munro was a professor at Brown University from 1891 to 1911. In addition to Picturesque Rhode Island (1881), he also wrote The History of Bristol, R. I. (1880), The Most Successful American Privateer (1913), Some Legends of Mount Hope (1915), and Tales of an Old Seaport , a General Sketch of Bristol, Rhode Island (1917). Munro died in Providence in 1934.

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