August 1995, Squibnocket Beach, Martha's Vineyard: the moment we fell in love with the clambake. Above the high-tide line was a band of smooth, flat rocks that made building a hearth less a matter of shoveling than rearranging. We started with logs from an old cord, bone-dry and easy to ignite, and foraged for kindling from a patch of pines inland. A hardy few tended the fire while the rest of us piled into a '51 DeSoto and drove to the island's north shore to harvest clams, mussels, and lobsters from a dockside market. We lingered awhile, watching fishermen bringing in their catch. Back at the beach, the fire-tenders had gathered pails of rockweed from the shallows. When the flames died, we hustled the seaweed and the seafood and potatoes into the pit in layers, pulled a damp canvas tarp over the oven, and secured it at the corners with large rocks.
The word clambake has become synonymous with seafood combo: you might get one at a Tucson steak house, or steam one up on your stove top in Des Moines. But even if you're 10 bottles of SPF 30 and five dog-eared paperbacks into August, you can't say your summer's complete until you've had a real beach clambake—spent a day with friends, building, foraging, stoking, awash in a beguiling alchemy of wood smoke, salt spray, seaweed, and sand. By the time the food's ready, it's almost beside the point.
That day at Squibnocket, when we finally pulled back the tarp, the lobster meat still had the translucency of fine sushi, the potatoes were only warm to the touch. We hadn't let the fire burn long enough. No matter. We gurneyed the food up to the house and into a 10-gallon cauldron. Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the beach with a steaming feast—the one we'd waited for all summer.
The Easy Way Out
A genuine clambake takes nearly six hours, even if wood, rockweed, and helpers are abundant. If you have the will but not the time, you can still enjoy a delicious clambake.
Third-generation bake master T. R. McGrath (401/847-7743; www.riclambake.com; from $25 per person) will come anywhere in the United States with all the fixings to feed up to a thousand.
• On Cape Cod, the Wequassett Inn (508/432-5400; www.wequassettinn.com; from $65) offers a variety of stellar clambake settings: on a lawn that slopes down to the bay; on the deck of the inn's restaurant; or delivered poolside to your chaise longue.
• The Ipswich Shellfish Fish Market (888/711-3060; www.ipswichfishmarket.com; from $99.95) will ship you a clambake kit with briny mussels, steamers, chowder, and live lobsters that have plenty of kick; no pit required.