FIFTY years ago Clark’s Point, the westerly of the two long necks of land between which the Acushnet River loses itself in Buzzards Bay, was a country of ‘shore farms.’ One of these farms, called ‘The Cottage,’ was periodically visited by a small band of pilgrims that came to worship at an altar — a rough circle of clean-washed beach stones set in a clearing overlooking a sandy beach. The season of the year chosen for the pilgrimage — or ‘Cottage Clambake,’ as it was called — was the last week in August, for then generally occurred a ‘ spell of weather’ that was ‘set fair,’ when the sun was tempered by a thin blue haze that softened and rounded all outlines and lent distance to the view.

The exact date determined, the ‘Skipper’ would send forth his invitations (never more than twenty-five), and early in the week cordwood, half green, half dry, would be hauled and stacked close to the circle of stones, or ‘bake-hole.’ Then, on the day before that appointed for the pilgrims to attend, there would be great activity throughout the neighborhood.

At morning low tide — no matter how early it may occur — two gangs spread themselves along the shores of the Cove, one with buckets and clam forks, the other with farm wagons and pitchforks, for the clams must be sweet, clean, and fresh, and the rockweed to bank the bake with unwilted. The experienced diggers have no difficulty, during one tide, in producing the prescribed half peck of clams — not too big and not too small — for every expected guest and helper. These the boys free from their stains of black mud and sand, finally sousing the full buckets in clear pools of sea water to rinse the grit, out of the ‘critters’ before transferring them to an open-seamed barrel in the cart.

There is also abundance of crisp rockweed, with golden-brown juicy bladders bursting with brine, floating at water level and caught in the pools among the boulder-strewn foreshores. This is forked into piles at the head of little coves or on sandy beaches where a wagon can most nearly approach, then loaded on the wagon and drawn handy to the bake-hole, where it is stacked and covered with sheets of heavy canvas to hold in the brine and protect the weed from sun and dew.

The clams, meanwhile, in their openseamed barrel, together with several open-headed tight barrels of fresh sea water, are hauled to the cart shed whose stone walls and tree-shaded roof will keep them calm and free from nervousness. Twice during the next twelve hours the clams are well sluiced down with bucketfuls of the fresh salt water.

While these preparations are in progress, Clark’s Point farms are searched for muskmelons, and a half bushel or more of fine green and golden globes are thumbed and smelled and found juicily ripe. These are picked and brought with care to ‘The Cottage,’ where they are ranged on a broad sunny shelf and, while still warm, cored from one end to the centre, care being taken that the rind as cut shall be preserved whole to be used as a plug after the corehole has been filled with the incomparable Madeira that has gone a sailing voyage to the far East and back to New Bedford. They are then set back on the shelf, plug end up, and allowed to chill all night, and before the morning sun has dried the icy dew on them they are set away in the coolest end of the cart shed — nectar and ambrosia — to await their appointed moment at the feast.

A gray sunrise on the day of ceremony assures good weather. The sweet corn is gathered early with the cool crispness of the night beaded on its green sheaths, the sweet potatoes are scrubbed, the small white onions pulled and stripped; the fish (rock cod for preference), taken the day before and kept alive during the night in a fish car, are gutted and, with heads, fins, tails, and skins left on, lowered into the cool shadowy shaft of the well in a basket that has been carefully scalded and scrubbed and allowed to dry out in the sun.

Ten-thirty A.M. to the dot is the hour set for lighting the fire in the bake-hole; for heat — and plenty of it — is to reach the vitals of its sides and encircling beach stones, and a heavy bed of embers is to be laid down on its bottom before it will be ready for the sacrifice. Much care and time, backed by experience, will be expended on this pyre, for when the match is applied at the appointed hour it must instantly burst into rushing flame in every part — circumference as well as middle. First is laid down a good heavy bed of old dry-astinder hay, with a train leading up to and outside the circle of stones. Above this is constructed a framework of soft pine fagots, dry but with the pitch still sticky, so placed and braced with air spaces between the crossed sticks that it will neither flatten down and smother the bed of hay below it nor be broken down by the weight of the oak and maple logs that are ranged above it — first a grid of split dry wood, then one of green, and so on until there is only space enough left for two more layers of fuel to top the encircling and containing boulders. The first of these last two layers is then heavily ballasted with clean wave-washed stones about the size and shape of a coconut, above which the last grid of logs is placed — an arrangement that assures a space for ample oxygen to mix with the gas and smoke coming from the fire below and play upon and force into the ballast stones a special intensity of heat.

To the youngest helper should always be accorded the privilege of setting the train alight. For in the years to come he will never forget the memory of that particular match, its almost explosive results, and the events that followed.

While the fire roars and crackles, eating up the hardwood fuel and converting the bake-hole into a volcanic crater and the stones into shimmering incandescence, white pine planks that are kept on hand for these occasions are set up on wooden horses to form a rough table in the shape of a hollow square, and benches running along both its outer and inner sides. This table is so placed that it is to windward of the fire, and after the sun passes the meridian and slopes toward the west it will be dappled with shade from the trees on the edge of the clearing. The end toward the bake-hole is not completed, which allows service to be rendered easily and quickly to all quarters.

Leaving an experienced aide armed with a rake with a long iron handle to tend the fire, the Skipper and two of his crew enter the cart shed where the green corn and sweet potatoes have been keeping cool. There the ears are stripped down to the last two of their pale strawcolored cerements and the tassel silk carefully picked off, leaving the oldivory kernels enwrapped against smoke or contamination while in the bake. The fish, cold and firm-fleshed, are then fetched to the shed from the well shaft, and treated to a seasoning of pepper and salt well rubbed in both outside and in the gaping belly cavity, and a sprig of costmary (that herb of all others intended by heaven to add a fillip to a baked fish) is inserted between the flaps of the gash; and finally all of them are carefully wrapped in the tenderest inner fronds of corn husk.


At noon the fire at the bake-hole has ceased to seethe with flames and become a deep sea of glowing coals reddening and whitening as the puffs of southwest wind blow over its surface, beneath which the layer of ballast stones have sunk to the bottom and lie white-hot, many ready to crack open when their covering of embers is presently removed by the help of long-handled besoms of gray birch twigs.

Now has arrived the crucial moment in the ceremony, for every minute and movement counts in the preservation of the highest possible temperature in and around the bake-hole. The instant the last hot coal or smouldering ember that might poison the bake with acrid smoke has been brushed out and away, the pile of rockweed is stripped of its canvas covering, and dripping forkfuls of it are thrown into and around the hole and pushed and prodded into a shallow nest above the white-hot bottom stones and up the shelving sides of the circle. On to this cushion, which for a few moments only remains wet and steamless, the potatoes in their scrubbed jackets and the corn and fish in their corn-husk wrappings are spread, while the clams in their glistening white papery shells are poured in among them and leveled off—all this with the precision of a gun crew on a battleship in action, under the eye and tense instruction of the Skipper.

During this loading of the bake, two of the crew stand by with the canvas sheet that has covered the pile of rockweed, and as the last of the clams are settled they clap the canvas over the top of the nest, tucking the clams and their companion bedfellows snugly and cleanly away. More rockweed is then forked on until all signs of the bake-hole and what it holds in its heart are lost to sight.

Fifty-six minutes, only, are now left before it is time to uncover the bake. Every one of these minutes is precious, for there is much still to be done to set the stage for the shift, without a letdown, from anticipation to realization. The acolytes are divided into two crews, ‘youngs’ and ‘olds’ — the former to act as Ganymedes and Hebes for the duration of the day, the ‘olds’ to assist the womenfolk of the household in the kitchen and later at the bake-hole. Each division has a captain who ‘knows the ropes’ and whose word is law. Under such military ordering it is but a short time before the table in the clearing is furnished with the requisite number of knives and forks, coarse linen napkins of generous size and laundered ‘soft,’ Sandwich glass tumblers, maplewood bowls (capacity about a quart) — and on the ground under the edge of the table, to the right of every indicated seat, an empty bucket. To windward of the bake-hole on a washtub bench are four well-scoured maple chopping trays, empty.

Within doors both summer and winter kitchens (many of the old houses had such an arrangement) are in full blast, the latter redolent with steam of the onions that have just been poured into the kettles of walloping water on the range, while on an iron rack over the cookstove of the summer kitchen stacks of glazed heavy earthenware plates and shallow bowls are heating, and the sweet unsalted freshly churned butter is slowly liquefying in a saucepan on the end of the stove farthest from the firebox. A moment arrives when, at a given signal, an iron door in the chimney breast next the range is swung open and the dark umber loaves of brown bread (in the dough of which only that soft, gray Rhode Island corn meal ground between slow-turning ‘stones’ in an old wateror wind-driven gristmill and dark heavy West Indian molasses are tolerated) are drawn out on long-handled wooden paddles from the cavern of the blandly hot brick oven where they have been slowly baking for hours. Hot to their very cores, they are lined up on clean hardwood cutting boards and swathed in fresh linen napkins to preserve their moist sponginess and protect them from the assaults of flies and wasps.


In ample time to arrive without any sensations of hustle or bustle, the pilgrims begin to make their appearance in the ‘wide-track’ two-seated ‘wagons,’ as the carriages with standing tops and furling side curtains of this countryside are called. After discharging their passengers, who move off to the lee side of the bake-hole, the drivers manœuvre the wagons into the shade cast by the farm barn, loose the traces, and lead the horses to a long rack for hitching, then join their friends in the clearing. There is good reason for choosing this position during the short wait before the uncovering takes place, for wafted down wind come odors from that heap of rockweed that would whet the most jaded appetite, but in hungering pilgrims arouse ecstasies of expectation.

When only ten more minutes are left before the appointed time, several stone jugs are hoisted from the well shaft where they have been suspended all morning and, sweating with the sudden change from cool to warm, take central positions on the table. This is the signal for the pilgrims to be seated — which is done without haste or jostling, for there is room and to spare for all at this board.

The jugs are then uncorked and circulated from hand to hand clockwise (disaster would follow if they moved against the sun) with a pause above every tumbler, into which is poured a ‘jorum’ of pale amber-colored liquid, cold but not overchilled, the ingredients of which are one third white Santa Cruz rum, a third strained juice of Dominica limes, and the balance slightly sweetened smoky China tea, with a suspicion of bruised mint leaves. This brew, of which a sip only should be taken before the clams make their appearance, is called locally ‘Lime Calabash,’ the wherefore of which is a yarn by itself of good length and much action.

This first libation has no sooner been poured than there issues from the house a procession — the Skipper and his entire crew — which bears down on the clearing all loaded with impedimenta: baskets of hot plates and bowls, hot pitchers of melted butter with a dash of cayenne pepper, hot steaming bowls of onions in a thin sauce of milk with a speckling of black pepper, cutting boards with the veiled loaves of brown bread, and a stack of cold plates and dessert spoons for serving at their proper moment those melons still hidden modestly in the shed.

The Skipper now takes his place close to the mound of rockweed with watch in hand, supported by four of the ‘olds.’

‘Fifty-five,’ he calls, and at this signal two of the trusty four start pitching forkfuls of the rockweed to one side, and as the pile dwindles, and the canvas blanket is neared, wisps and jets of delicioussmelling steam pervade the glade, a compound of odors impossible to describe but, once enjoyed, never to be forgotten. As the last forkfuls are lifted from the steam-stained canvas, the besoms are passed over the surface to rid it of remnants of the weed which the heat has transformed to shreds and twigs lustreless and brittle. Then the blanket is gingerly seized at the two corners to leeward, lifted up, and turned back, exposing enough of the bake to allow the two acolytes with the toughest labor-calloused hands to kneel and flip the infernally hot clams into the chopping trays which four of the ‘youngs’ are tendering tike begging bowls. The four trays, brimming full, are then rushed to the table and discharged with speed into the wooden bowls in front of the pilgrims and the now-seated Skipper.

A neophyte at this point might be puzzled as to what the ‘correct’ procedure might be, but not so with this band of seasoned veterans, for they fall to with claw and tooth ‘shucking’ off the white shells, lifting the tender sweet morsel therefrom, stripping the skin from the shrunken black snout, and then, with a dextrous dip into the bowl of melted butter, popping the clam whole into hungering mouths. Most of the shells, after the clams have been lifted out, will contain a spoonful of salty liquor or broth; this also should be tilted into the mouth after each swallow. The empty shells are dropped into the buckets on the ground under the edges of the table.

The first bowl of clams disappears with surprising speed. Another relay appears, reënforced with fish, corn, and potatoes from the bake, and slices of brown bread and helpings of onions from the centre of the table. But, from this point on, how can I attempt to set down in words, which after all are poor things, the disposal of all these gifts of God, which have been for the most part cooked in the good earth, seasoned by the salts thereof, uncontaminated by the impurities of civilization, fresh as the dawn, and in such abundance that no one has to bolt his first helping to ensure a second, third, or even a fourth — except to say that when every soul here gathered has filled himself or herself to comfortable capacity, and those who smoke have ignited the butt ends of Manila cheroots that have come tied in bunches with buttercup-yellow ribbands in leaden chests from the Far Eastern Isles, the day sinks softly and peacefully down towards its end in a pale blue smoky haze of contentment: a contentment that can only come from the ‘know-how’ of making the most of Nature’s gifts and the satisfaction arising from such knowledge, which has been acquired, not from endowed institutions of learning, but from attendance at that greatest of all universities, the outdoor world.