Tuesday, August 19, 2008

OOS: Return to Clambake Nation

Above: A rendering of the culinary nations of North America. Modern political borders are shown in white. Note that culinary nation borders are in a constant state of change, and that many of these nations overlap one another. Also note that smaller microstates exist within these greater areas (e.g., The Scrapple Republic of the Greater Philadelphia Metro and the Lebanon Bologna & Peanut Butter Free State of South Central Pennsylvania, to name just two), resulting in a patois of flavors and experiences, even in areas that are firmly within some larger nation. This graphic was originally produced for an article in the New York Times.

Imagine yourself in the rural, rolling hills of northern Lancaster county Pennsylvania. This is an area of traditional, small holding farmers and traditional small towns, and those hills that will give way to the blue ridges of the Appalachians to the west. It is a wholly bucolic place, but it is also a land of great conflict and difference. This is because northern Lancaster county happens to be the confluence of four different nations, each with its own tastes and traditions. From the North and West, Maple Syrup nation, sparsely represented but a real presence, following the rhythm of the seasons as they collect and process their harvest. From the South and West, Chestnut Nation, a mysterious gathering, who do battle with squirrels to collect the bounty of the mighty oak. To the South, stretching from the Chesapeake down the coast, Crabcake nation: a boisterous, welcoming people; well versed in the ways of the scuttling sea bugs, often as willing to eat a softshell on a bun as to go to the trouble of making a crabcake. These people are beer drinkers, boat sailors, friends, and neighbors. And from the east and north, the Clambake Nation. These are our people: our nation, our heritage, our tradition. We gather together to build fires and steam clams, to eat the best sweet corn on the planet, to consume mountains of cole slaw and piles of fresh tomatoes, and to - when it has all been eaten - follow it with a chaser of the butter we soaked our clams in during the meal.

These nations are not fixed, not separated by trenches or walls - no, the national borders are fluid, and as such a Clambaker could live next to a Maple Syrupian, an Chestnutter next to a Crabcaki. There are even some blended families; though for obvious reasons the sea-based nations are more likely to intermarry with one another than with a sylvan nation, and vice versa.

Now, while many of us are born into these nations, in the end nationality is an affiliation of choice. Some choose not to be a member of any one of them, preferring instead to enjoy them as we pick and choose. Some are members of tiny subnations, limited to a town or metro areas. Others gradually switch from one to another as time passes. And still others find themselves orphaned, and so they join a new nation, taking the traditions and tastes of others as their own.

This last way is how Jacob's family came to be proud citizens of the Clambake Nation. It was during the second world war, and due to a chronic health problem, Jacob's grandfather was unable to enlist. He was able to complete his patriotic duty building B-26's in Baltimore, however, and during this time he developed a taste for clams. Why he chose clams and not crabcakes is lost to history (though we suspect that the generous use of butter in clam eating had something to do with it), but no matter how it happened, to this day we annually gather from all points of the country to eat ungodly numbers of bivalves and renew our family ties once more.

Loyal readers know that we feel very strongly about food and fellowship. This is a core belief for both of us. For Jacob, this belief comes from many sources, but the annual gathering that his family refers to simply as "The Bake" is perhaps the primary font from which this passion flows. So today we're sharing a few moments from it with you, because as important as working through Chef Picard's opus is to us, at the end of the day this is how WE do it.

This is Pennsylvania, so we don't mis en place: we fill up our steamer. We start empty, adding a wooden bracket that keeps the food off the bottom of the steamer (and out of the water). Then we add potatoes, right out of the garden this morning:

Clambake: Step 1

And follow that with onions, from a roadside stand nearby:

Clambake, Step 2

Now, cover these sturdy things with a few layers of corn picked this morning:

Clambake, Step 3

Until the steamer is nearly filled:

Clambake, Step 3.5

Then, top it all off with about 12 quarts of clams:

Clambake, Final Step

And spread to even them out:

Clambake Finalization

Now, we add about 12 quarts of water, cover, and take to the firepit, which as been burning for some time now:

IMG_4990

While this is all steaming, we take the opportunity to melt a wee bit (about a gallon) of locally made butter:

A wee bit of butter

And to prepare side dishes (tomatoes, salads, cole slaw, and the like) for the onslaught.

After an hour or so over the fire (about halfway through we add brats to the mix), everything's ready so out they all come:

Coming out of the Bakery

Now we make sure to have the right beverage and "sauce" on hand:

IMG_4993

And then, we assemble our plates from the platters of goodness:

IMG_4976

And that, friends, is all there is to it. When everything turns out well (which everything did this year, and does most years) you end up with an orgy of flavors, freshness, and joy. The buttery goodness of the clams, the sweet pop of the corn, the tomatoes that have more to them than anything you'll find in the store, and a flood of other flavors and foods... and this year, the vegetable soup that starts the day's eating correctly (way to go Constance!).

Note to selves: Eat more clams.

Time, mis to eat: No real mis here. Time over the fire was about an hour; but there was a substantial amount of prep and harvest beforehand.

Blast from the past: A little more about him and her, in case you need context.

Next up: Tomato sauce! (Honest.)

P.S.: Special thanks to the entire Hagy clan for another wonderful, well-worth-the-trip, Clambake. See you in 2009!

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