Clambake on Prudence Island
Nearly three decades ago, in October 1980, Yankee ran a festive story about the Day family and their annual clambake on Prudence Island — a mostly summer community located in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Bill and Sue Day are the backbone of this ritual, but they have lots of help — after all, they feed more than 150 people at this gathering each year. Their sons — Skip, Neil, Tom, and Perry — are old hands at this, but friends camp out in the morning here, too, ready to help, knowing that ahead of them this day there’ll be danger, fresh seafood, sunshine, good company, and, of course, beer.
Preparation starts early, and the bake will take hours. Despite a rain-soaked night, “it’s a perfect day,” says Bill, looking out at the shimmering blue water. A traditional clambake is a mountain of clams, lobsters, corn, potatoes, and sausages steamed to perfection, but there’s no specific cooking time, and no easy way to check for doneness as the shellfish, meat, and veggies cook. “Days and days of preparation and cooking under dangerous circumstances,” notes Bill, “and you don’t know until the tarp is pulled away whether it’ll be a nice meal or a pile of expensive garbage.”
The first essential step is to gather the smooth, round rocks that will be heated to do the actual cooking. These stones are crucial, and not every one gathered makes it to the firepit: Any cracks may lead to an explosion, as water gets into the fissure, heats up, and creates a lot of pressure. It’s hazardous for a variety of reasons, the least of which is the possibility of the whole bake’s toppling over.
Most clambakes are done in pits dug into the sand, but the Days use a rocky ledge in front of their property. They roll weeks’ worth of old newspapers and pile them neatly into a 10-foot-square section on the flattest part of the largest flat boulder, followed by kindling, larger pieces of wood, and finally a carefully placed pile of those rocks. “You have to stack them just so,” explains Tom, “or they topple over orspread out, and the heat isn’t strong enough.” Bill lights the pile and it quickly becomes a bonfire 15 feet high. The rocks will “cook” for an hour or more until they’re screaming hot and most of the wood turns to ash.
As the rocks heat up, Sue supervises a team of chowder makers, hard at work chopping potatoes, onions, bacon, and quahogs. In gargantuan soup pots set on camp stoves, they render the bacon and cook the onions and potatoes in the precious fat. They add milk and the juice from the clams and cook it all down to Sue’s liking. Just before serving, she’ll add the chopped clams and cook them briefly “so they don’t get chewy.” Meanwhile, a second group is shucking hundreds of ears of corn.
Bill determines when the rocks are hot enough to start cooking. Then a team of sunburned men, brave by nature — made braver still by a steady flow of beer — descend on the glowing stones and rake the ash and the bigger chunks of wood out and into the ocean. Occasionally an errant rock rolls down into the water and explodes with an angry hiss.
They build the bake in less than 10 minutes. A thick layer of Maine rockweed goes on top of the stones, providing the steam and much of the briny flavor. The lacy bundles begin to smoke and pop. Wire pallets filled with food are hoisted on top of the incendiary rocks and seaweed, billowing with white smoke: two bushels of steamer clams first, followed by 50 pounds of potatoes and onions, then chorizo sausage, ears and ears of corn, 25 pounds of cod fillets, and 150 lobsters. From the sea the men drag a tarp, heavy from soaking in the saltwater, and place it on top of the four-foot-high pile, securing it with rocks. “A lot of drama,” laughs Bill. “Now we wait.”
In the two hours it takes for the bake to “do its thing,” boatloads of guests arrive, and the green lawn starts to hum with chatter and music. With every visitor, the coolers get fuller and the food table nearly buckles under the weight of all the pizzas, antipasto trays, dips, chips, and party platters. Some of the kids do belly flops off the docks into the bracing water, while others search for crabs and mussels in the crevices of rocks. Babies take tentative first steps toward full-fledged walking, and cousins catch up with one another. Other folks take a well-deserved nap in the warm sun.
Two hours later, everyone gathers as the Days remove the tarp and reveal the bake. Bill and his sons examine the lobsters: perfection. As efficiently as the bake was assembled, the food is served, and no one on Prudence Island that day can remember clams and lobsters ever tasting so good.
Photographs by Erik Rank