Clambake ©DPaul Brown

Ah, the Fourth of July, the quintessential summer holiday. For most, this day means sweltering midday sun followed by a balmy night with a spectacular fireworks display; the smell of burgers sizzling on over the coals commingled with the acrid smoke from sparklers.

But here in San Francisco, as with most things, it’s different. In nearly 20 years living here, I could count the number of fog-free Fourths on one hand that has lost digits from a temperamental firecracker. I can scarcely remember the last time I actually saw fireworks on the Fourth, as opposed to eerie colorful glowing fog.

But that’s okay; I like our quirky, often blustry weather, and wouldn’t trade it for the oppressive heat and humidity of the other coast for all the Roman candles made in China. Still, I do find myself occasionally pining for nostalgic tastes of the Northeast. Last year, I finally sated my craving for lobster rolls. This year, on a recent visit to my mother‘s place in San Diego, we undertook another New England classic, the clambake. 

Or at least, a home-ready version of one. True clambakes are typically cooked on the beach, in large pots lined with seaweed over smoldering embers from a bonfire, served by dumping the entire booty across a table covered in newsprint. Gluttony ensues.

So, sure, the stovetop version may lack that rustic charm, but you also get less sand in your teeth this way. It is no less satisfying for a summer supper, and is every bit the crowd pleaser. We took a cue from a relation back east and created individually bundled serving, wrapped in cheesecloth. 

Clambake ©DPaul Brown

The art of the clambake, if you can call it such, is in the layering. You want to put your hardiest ingredients, such as potatoes and carrots, at the bottom, where they will cook directly in boiling liquid; your clams will be at the top, where they can gently steam.

To formalize this with measurements would be like putting on a tux at the beach. Typical ingredients include potatoes, carrots and corn in the vegetable category, some kind of sausage and even chicken, plus lobster, mussels and, of course, clams. We stuck with the basics: new potatoes, corn on the cob, hot Italian sausage, chicken thighs, and littlenecks.

Just get yourself a standard soup bowl. Lay down a large stretch of cheesecloth, folder over to form a two-ply square. Lay on your hardy veggies, followed by the corn, sausage and chicken, and finally the clams. Pull the corners together and tie off to form a neat parcel. Repeat.

You want to make sure all your parcels will make contact with the bottom of your pan to ensure they all cook through evenly; estimate four parcels for each large stockpot. Lay in your parcels, and add water and/or beer to cover about halfway, as well as about 1 Tbsp of salt and one packet of seafood seasoning (a fistful of Old Bay will do very nicely, thank you). If you have extra clams, sprinkle them over the top. Cover and put over high heat until you reach a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a constant steam for about 20 minutes. Crack one of those beers for yourself, serve and enjoy.

Clambake ©DPaul Brown


Lydia is all about the Old Bay.

Can’t find Old Bay? Make your own.

Lazy? Take the easy way with a clambake from Lobster Gram.

  • Ahhh, you make us New Englanders proud. Another way you can do indoor clam “bakes” is to wrap individual packets in aluminum foil, and bake them in the oven. (You need to use cooked sausage for that.) And then, of course, you must cover your dining table with newspaper or kraft paper, and dump your clambake directly on it rather than on plates. Messiness is part of the fun.

  • We don’t light fireworks except on New Year’s Eve (except for some pyromaniacs who do it on Easter, and of course many Chinese families who do it on Chinese New Year). I hate ’em for many reasons, not the least of which are pollution and the danger of mutilation.
    Ahem. With that gruesome thought out of the way, I quite like your NE 4oJ feast. Not really big on the chicken, but a big fan of de seafood 🙂

  • Lydia: Excellent idea! And yes, were we in our own home, we would have gone the messy route. But at my mother’s place …
    Manggy: The chicken was an unusual addition for me as well — but that’s how my aunt’s mother-in-law does it, so we gave it a whirl. It’s totally optional, and actually I think added too much food. As for fireworks, I love them, but the nutbags who fire them off in their own backyards (and by extension ours, living in a city) scare the living hell out of me.

  • This brings back so many memories. I lived on Cape Cod for years. We often celebrated with clambakes at the beach- digging a big pit in the sand, lining it with stones. The taste of the sea was in every bite.
    No fireworks this year, here in Santa Monica. It’s a bit foggy, too. Like you- I don’t mind. We bought some lobster tails. Not sure what we’re going to do with them yet.
    Have a safe and happy Fourth!

  • EB

    I’ve had the Lobster Gram version before. Not bad, but you’re right. Utterly lazy.

  • Awesome!!! I have always wanted to do a clambake, and never considered trying it at home. Individual bundles are such a brilliant idea, too!
    I just got my fill of lobster rolls right here in Redwood City, recently. Check out my post on the Old Port Lobster Shack if you feel another craving coming on, or want some freshly imported steamers.
    Sam’s Chowder House in Pacifica also serves award winning lobster rolls, although I haven’t tried them there, yet.
    ~ Paula

  • Thanks a lot, Paula. Thanks to your comment I had to run right out and get myself a crab roll since Old Port is next door to my office. You made me do it.

  • Doug

    Grandpa used a steamer chest and layered the ingredients in reverse order. When the chest was flipped over the food was in the proper order for steaming. He made cheesecloth packets for each of the ingredients except the lobsters or crabs which were chilled in ice water before putting them in the chest to make them stay put. The chest had an over-sized top (to maintain a water seal) with a tap on it to drain off the broth for sipping on a cool fall afternoon. Grandpa made the chest but nobody seems to do it this way anymore. Don’t remember him using sausage, but he did use chicken.