This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
June is bustin’ out all over. Parties take to the open air. While loyal Englishwomen plan platinum-jubilee street-beanos, Americans’ fancy turns to thoughts of a real nice clambake.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s picture of industrialising New England was authentic: women undertook remunerative work; men in consequence wallowed in diminished responsibility and expanded leisure. carousel’s clambake menu, however, was unconvincingly long: codfish chowder with bits of salt pork, then roasted lobsters, before the clams arrived, “steamed under rockweed”.
It sounds “real nice”, especially set to Rodgers’s music; but a clambake, which is one Native Americans’ few contributions to gastronomy, corresponds only to the last course of the feast celebrated in the musical.
It’s properly cooked in a pit, over stones hot from driftwood embers, with clams strewn between layers of damp seaweed. Corn, potatoes, cured meats and other shellfish are extras.
Portuguese linguica and chouriço have become clambakers’ added sausage of choice, ever since Azorean immigrants transformed regional taste in the late nineteenth century. (For the same reason, habourfront butchers in Boston sell goat, and New England cafés serve pastéis de nata — crispy custard tartlets, a Portuguese gift to the world.)
Both sausages are porky, smoky and spicy; the linguça typically the narrower, softer, and slightly more delicately flavored, but equally aromatic: unstinted in garlic and smoked paprika, which complement clams well. Molluscs of different varieties have passionate advocates, but size matters for pit cookery: relatively large specimens are best.
To convey the cultural hybridity of a Native American and Azorean mélange, the dish Americans call “New England clam boil” is a practical alternative for cooking in conventional kitchens.
While Englishwomen plan platinum-jubilee street-beanos, Americans’ fancy turns to thoughts of a real nice clambake
Chopped onions, seasoned and simmered to translucency in olive oil, with garlic, mixed fine dried herbs and a little cinnamon and cayenne are the starting point. I like to brown thick tranches of potato and chouriço before draining off the fat and making up the liquor with fish stock enlivened by wine from Portuguese encruzado grapes, which yield more body and richness than most whites from the western rim of Iberia. Or for non-purists, who will allow a Spanish wine, amontillado works even better.
New Englanders often prefer beer and reduce the liquor to a broth that can be served on its own, but the dish can be made to transcend its humble origins if the reduction is severe — down to the level of a sauce into which thick cream is stirred .
Meanwhile, the moment to add the clams, with baby corn cobs if one likes, comes when the potatoes soften. When the shells open, the cream can be added carefully, off the heat. It won’t curdle on returning to the fire briefly, before a garnish of parsley, a sprinkling of paprika and some saffron strands decorate the dish with Portuguese national colors.
On the hither side of the Atlantic, will Britons’ hurrah for the Queen be honored with equally good party-food? I hope not. Let the British be at their most characteristic: puritanically proud, unwaveringly insular, unseduced by foreign flavours, or by the postcolonial temptations — jerk chicken, say, or vindaloo — that evoke the imperial
decline of the new Elizabethan age.
I envision, beneath glum skies, grim rain and sagging bunting, scrubbed trestles dotted with restrained amounts of determined dreariness — such as those ominous sandwiches of slimy raw between spongy, anaemic bread-slices, which must either curl menacingly or be kept nastily damp under wet dishcloths.
Will there be pork pies of slight acridity under a tough carapace of chewy gelatine and pallid pastry? And soapy cheddar-sticks and sausage rolls stuffed with what looks and tastes like moist blotting paper? Will Battenberg cake of similar consistency evoke the evasively renamed House of Windsor? Will Coronation Chicken recall the austerity of the Queen’s early reign, under a yellow film of sickly salad cream streaked with curry powder?
Fresh clams are ill-advised in Britain in June, but if anyone, eyeing America enviously, wants street-party food that is uncompromisingly British and easily served, I suggest potted shrimps or coarse trout paste on baps, or on muffins toasted by the bonfire , or jellied consommé in paper cups, topped with a tiny teaspoonful of local thick honey, then asparagus spears rolled in slivers of oak-smoked ham, followed, before strawberries, by cold roast ribs of rose veal, which can be hand-held for munching, but only if the bones are stripped — or, as old-time butchers unpatriotically say, “frenched”. The antidote to frenching? Warm beer, I suppose.