50. The Clambake

50. The Clambake

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Clambake

Cooking is like love.

It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.

~Harriet van Horne

In 1969 I was a student at Syracuse University. That was the year of the campus riots when we were tear-gassed. It was a horrible burning sensation. My eyes flooded with hot tears and my throat felt like it was on fire. I couldn’t catch my breath. This same terror of unleashed nasal passages and stinging tear ducts occurred when my husband, Bob, put together our Cape Cod clambake.

You see, Thanksgiving’s at his sister’s house. Christmas is at his folks’. Chanukah’s at my brother’s. So, some spiteful relative decided I need to host a family day too.

I assertively put my two cents in when asked to comply and here’s what I said. “Sure!” So now Bob’s family comes down from New Hampshire and my brother’s family comes up from Washington, DC every Memorial Day for my very own seasonal to-do.

The day began well. Early in the morning, we drove down to the marina and collected seaweed. It was just about sunrise as we sat on the rocks and watched fishing boats, still with their lights on, depart from the harbor. When the lobster market opened, we bought steamers and mussels and seven lobsters weighing two pounds each.

After getting permission from the fire department to have a cooking fire, Bob dug a pit in the backyard. Then he lined the pit with rocks and started a fire on top of them. In a typical clambake, the seaweed goes on when the rocks get hot. Then the food gets placed and cooks under the cover of a tarp from the steam of the wet seaweed. Eventually Bob adds corn, still in the husk. Our feast was to be ready at two o’clock.

At six o’clock, we were well past the irritability stage.

The thing is—I love Bob’s family, but the overriding theme of our gatherings is my Jewish-ness versus their pagan beliefs—oh excuse me, I meant to say Gentile-ness. Don’t get me wrong. They love me too, but they worry about offending me, so they go overboard. At Christmas, instead of carols, they have a Fiddler on the Roof tape playing.

Truthfully, I’m uptight around them also, basically because they’re in-laws—you know—part of the authority pack you spend your life kissing up to, all the while pretending you’ve outgrown this trait. But for this year’s clambake, I decided to dip my tootsies in the maturity pool and I learned the following: there really does come a time in life when you stop caring about what other people think and you no longer need somebody else’s approval.

And if I ever get there, I’ll send you an invite.

Now, I don’t keep kosher but Bob’s mom needs to act as if I do. Hence, she doesn’t put cheese on my hamburger, which is way up there on the drag meter. She knows it’s not kosher to mix dairy products with meat products because, as I once told her, all Jewish people are lactose intolerant.

I had thought it would make his mom more comfortable if I made chopped liver for an appetizer. Bob was on the fence.

“I want the truth, Bob. You always loved my chopped liver.”

“Well, it’s kind of… liver-y.”

“Your sense of taste is in the toilet.”

“You asked for the truth!”

“You should know me by now. If I ask for the truth, it always means I don’t want to hear it.”

He tried to get away. A savvy, but unsuccessful move.

I grabbed his arm. “Did you know that I grew up without shellfish because it isn’t kosher?” I frequently got on this childhood deprivation kick. “My mother said it’s because lobsters eat sewage. And Christmas? Forget about presents.”

“But Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“That’s right. We spend the holidays obsessing about mayonnaise. A dairy product or not? If I was kidnapped and my picture was on a milk carton, nobody in my neighborhood eating any meat would have seen it!” I couldn’t stop. “Butterless bread with meat, Bob! All Jewish people know the Heimlich maneuver. Heimlich was probably a Jew who had to save his mother from choking on a dry wad of rye.”

His mom, who always treats me like I’m Yentl, came to the clambake with potato knishes.

“I didn’t think lobsters were kosher,” she said.

“They’re not. But it’s okay to break the kosher laws if you eat outside, and besides, if God really wanted us to keep kosher, he wouldn’t have put Swiss cheese on a sandwich with corned beef and named it after some Jewish guy called Reuben.”

She gingerly stepped away from me with a polite but uncertain look on her face.

My brother examines everything he eats. You can imagine how this plays out when he’s studying the innards of a steamed clam. Unfortunately, sausages were on the menu too.

I went to help Bob. Every time he picked up the tarp to see if the lobsters were done, they began to walk away.

“I don’t think the fire’s hot enough,” I said. “Those lobsters have been doing the hokey pokey in there for about two hours.” The look Bob gave me could only be described as akin to Linda Blair’s facial expression when the nice priest came in to exorcise her.

And so, by seven o’clock, I put a huge pot up to boil on the stove. I gently patted Bob on the arm.

“It’s time,” I said. His shoulders slumped. “The lobsters have had a good life.” With potholders, I retrieved the shellfish. “It will be quick… painless.” He started to walk away. “You’ve got to think of them, honey. This isn’t living. They wouldn’t have wanted to have gone on this way.”

And so, I steamed the lobsters and fried the sausage. I looked out the back window to see Bob standing by the smoldering fire. He carefully picked out a bunch of small black rocks about the size of ping-pong balls. I later found out that’s what corn looks like when it’s been on fire for eight hours.

And so, we had our clambake on the picnic table in the backyard.

We dipped the steamers and mussels in broth and drawn butter, as it’s called. Not that anybody has any idea what that means. (Which reminds me—most fried clam shacks proudly put the following on their menu: “Our fish is fried in canola oil.” What the heck is a canola?) We slathered the sausages with hot German mustard and ate them with our hands. The lobsters were perfection. Silky and luscious and dripping with butter too.

I saw Bob gazing over at the fire, now just pieces of charcoal. I knew he felt badly that he couldn’t make a clambake. I got an idea.

On Cape Cod, the stars are so prevalent because there are no city lights to diminish them. Bob loves to go out on moonless nights and search for the Milky Way. After our feast, he went out back with everyone to sit on our glider swing. I got in the truck and went a block to a convenience store where I picked up graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate bars and marshmallows.

Later, I asked Bob to stoke the fire and add some wood. We roasted the marshmallows and put them in a graham cracker sandwich with a slice of chocolate wedged in. We sat on the ground, making up stories about noises we could hear in the woods. Everyone had at least three s’mores and a wonderful time.

~Saralee Perel

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