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Writing on Water: On politics, religion and clambakes

Perhaps it was my family’s connection to the Quakers that inspired them to gather firewood, rocks, and seaweed to create a clambake back in August 1959 on Barn Island in Stonington. In those days it was possible to find a spot on the beach and dig a hole deep enough for the all-day cooking of the clams, lobsters, onions, corn, potatoes and chicken among hot rocks and seaweed. No tripe, eel or mackerel were included because my mother didn’t like them. A remote spot for this ceremonious cooking was necessary to reduce the possibility of neighbors being disturbed by the noise generated by me and my brothers, along with five or six of our friends.

I remember my grandmother barking orders about pit-digging from her command post on a large, flat rock in view of the beach and my father leaning into his shovel, creating a small mountain of sand as the pit widened and deepened. My brothers, along with friends Skip and Charlie, tended the wood fire in which smooth, round rocks the size of small cannonballs were heated and occasionally exploded to their delight. I slogged around gathering seaweed in a basket with small waves lapping against my ankles.

But, where do the Quakers fit in, relative to this ritualistic feast? And, didn’t the Native Americans — specifically the Wampanoag people — generously share this efficient clambake cooking method with the Pilgrims along with vast locations of shellfish that sustained the newcomers when they first arrived on the Mayflower?

Anthropologists have discovered evidence that the Puritans ultimately rejected Native American cooking styles and preferred cooking in pots on a stove. Researcher Kathy Neustadt (a leading “clamologist”) writes that, while clambaking has prehistoric origins, it fell out of favor with the early settlers especially following King Phillip’s War (1675—1676) when the Wampanoag people were almost completely wiped out. As the decimation of Native Americans throughout New England continued, following the war, the English Puritans went back to the cooking methods that they had brought from Europe. The clambake, as a convenient, pot-less way to cook for a crowd, disappeared from notice for more than 100 years.

It began to resurface in 1800 as part of Yankee popular culture when the Old Colony Club, a group of nostalgic wealthy gentlemen in Plymouth, Massachusetts, held a Forefather’s Day dinner commemorating the past. The meal was not an actual hole-in-the-ground clambake but consisted of foods associated with the early colonists: Indian Whortleberry pudding, succotash, clams, oysters, codfish, venison, sea-fowl, frost-fish, eels, apple pie, cranberry tarts and cheese.

A few years later, in 1849, the Dictionary of Americanisms by John Bartlett described the earliest documentation of a more authentic clambake in New England in association with a political party. He recorded that “the greatest feast of the kind that ever took place in New England … was a grand political mass-meeting in favor of … William Harrison on the 4th of July, 1840. Nearly 10,000 people assembled in Rhode Island … and a clambake and chowder were prepared.”

In 1860, a large clambake was held for Senator Stephen Douglas, and another in the 1930s for Calvin Coolidge. As Kathy Neustadt says in “Clambake: A history & Celebration of an American Tradition,” “a connection between eating American and eating clams for one’s political candidate had been affirmed.”

By the early 20th century, the entire coast of New England was bursting with clambake venues. Businesses boomed until many were devastated by the hurricane of 1938. The survivors continued to dwindle through World War II and almost none were left after Hurricane Carol in 1954.

And here’s where the Quakers come in. While both sides of my family descended from the Rogerenes, my parents also kept up with the activities of other Quakers. They probably knew that the Quakers of southeastern Massachusetts started holding one clambake per year as a church social in 1888 and turned it into an annual fundraising venture.

As of 2019, they had 100 volunteers who served 600 paying guests on the third Saturday in August. The pandemic will probably create a break in that 131-year history.

It’s possible that my parents had wanted to set out for the Allen’s Neck, Society of Friends clambake in Dartmouth, Mass., in August 1959, a four-hour car ride in those days. But, considering their can-do approach to life and family size, it probably made more sense to pack up the car and head out to Barn Island.

It was a day I’ll never forget.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached through her website, ruthwcrocker.com, where she also lists detailed instructions for both traditional and “modernized” clambakes.

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