How Cleveland Came to Claim the Clambake

Clambakes are more popular in Northeast Ohio than any other region of the United States outside of New England.” So reads an unattributed statement in Wikipedia’s entry on the Cuisine of the Midwestern United States. Still, despite Wiki’s lack of citation, it’s clear to anyone who has spent a fall in the Cleveland area that steaming piles of clams in broth, grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, and corn are a serious tradition. But why?

We’ll get this out of the way right up front—no one knows. Plenty of people think they know, and there are some pretty compelling stories, but at the end of the day, the reason Northeast Ohioans go nuts for clams from late August through October is a mystery.

It’s not that we didn’t search hard for the basis of the phenomenon. We did, starting with our paper of record, The Plain Dealer, which put the region’s “New England legacy” in the forefront of clambake lore. And it is tempting to cite this area’s history as the Connecticut Western Reserve as the origin of this great tradition. But really? Did hardscrabble New England refugees, fleeing the destruction of the Revolutionary War at the dawn of the 19th century, bring with them their taste for steamed clams and drawn butter? It’s possible, of course, but we’re not convinced.

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Another theory comes from Tom McIntyre, who runs the venerable Kate’s Fish at the West Side Market. Tom’s position is that Northeast Ohio got its taste for clams not from New England transplants, but instead from more recent groups of European immigrants who had a taste for the bivalves. As for the fall timing, Tom says that is born of logistics. Clams were shipped to Cleveland by rail in unrefrigerated cars, and cool weather ensured minimal degradation in quality. That all sounds plausible enough, but we needed more.

So we reached out to Marty Gaul, the head fish buyer for Heinen’s. Surely she would have some insight on the subject. Marty, a Northeast Ohio native with 30 years of clambakes under her belt, told us it had something to do with the Rockefellers and rail cars, but in true scavenger hunt form, Marty suggested we talk to the folks at the Euclid Fish Company. They’ve been selling bakes for years and they’d know the story.

On Marty’s recommendation we contacted John Young, the third-generation steward of Euclid Fish, another local company whose 70 years in the trade gave us hope that we were getting close to solving the riddle. John presented the most concrete, if somewhat Euclid Fish-centric explanation, of our clambakes. He explained that his grandfather, John Comella, had been peddling waffles from a cart in downtown Cleveland in the ‘40s. The waffle thing petered out, and he transitioned his cart to a mobile clam and oyster retail operation. World War II ended, and John C. saw the opportunity to purchase surplus military cooking equipment—notably large steamer pots that proved to be perfect for clambakes. With the ingredients and gear, John Comella became Chef Comella, and a catering business bringing clambakes to the masses was born.

This sounds great, but John C. was quick to admit that clambakes existed here prior to his business. Still, Mr. Young’s story is that his grandfather’s purchase of the surplus pots, transition into catering clambakes, and renting out clambake equipment served to establish the bake as we know it today. As for the fall timing, like Tom, John pointed out that clams came to Cleveland by rail traveling from the east en route to Chicago. According to him they’d be iced down in other Rust Belt cities like Syracuse and Buffalo along the way. The reliability of the icing was dicey, and the cooler months provided the freshest clams. But then why aren’t there clambakes in Syracuse, Buffalo, or even Chicago?

Here’s our theory, and we’ll admit it might be a bit blasphemous. Our clambakes aren’t about what comes out of the steamer. It’s about the party.

Historically, the term clambake was used not necessarily to describe an actual feast of clams, but instead, at least according to Merriam-Webster, “a gathering characterized by noisy sociability.” It’s a raucous gathering, and that’s what really defines what we do in the fall. We get together, those who imbibe tend to do so liberally, and we have a good time. Friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors gather to enjoy the fleeting fall. Sure, the food is great, but after spending hours catching up in the cool air and letting loose, it would be hard not to find satisfaction in a bowl of hot clams in broth, chicken that you’ve been smelling for the last two hours, celebrating the departure of summer’s corn, and the arrival of fall’s sweet potatoes.

Why clams and why here? Because they’re social. Because they’re messy. Because they’re luxurious, but not unobtainable. But really, probably because someone thought it would be a clever idea to start cooking clams at his fall “clambake,” and he lived in or around Cleveland.

Throwing a bake

While the exact roots of the Northeast Ohio clambake remain a mystery, something that we can confidently opine on is how the bake is thrown. Not that this subject isn’t without its own controversies.

The basics of the clambake are constant: clams, chicken, sweet potatoes, and corn, all steamed together in a large kettle over flavorful broth. And everyone agrees that late August through October is the prime time for clambakes.

Other details see little consensus among professionals and enthusiasts alike. Not to worry—there’s more than one way to throw a clambake, and we’ve gathered tips from experts here. In addition to the fishmongers from Kate’s, Heinen’s, and Euclid Fish, we spoke with two other clambake veterans. Adam Lambert is a former chef at Bar Cento and soon to be proprietor of the Meat & Curing Co. in Ohio City. But more importantly, Adam, along with his family, has been throwing “Lambakes” for over 30 years in Brookpark. Kevin Vinicky is a Parma native with over 25 years of experience throwing successful clambakes for family and friends.

First, it starts with the broth. Everyone agrees that a great broth is key to a great bake. The broth comes from the steaming liquid, which is water with maybe some beer, butter, and clam juice thrown in. Both Adam and Kevin recommend placing aromatics in contact with the liquid, notably carrots, onion, and celery, and maybe a bay leaf or two and some garlic cloves if you’re feeling flush. Kevin wisely suggests placing the aromatics in an extra clam bag or two, smartly allowing for a simplified cleanup. For the sake of continuity, the Lamberts will save a liter or two of the broth from every bake, freezing it and including it in future bakes, ensuring a connection between bakes past and future.

Regardless of how you make the broth, a good clambake pot has a spigot at the bottom so that you can steal pitchers of hot elixir as the clambake cooks. The broth works as a pre-clam amuse, a side dish, and even possibly a cocktail mixer all in one. The best broth comes from the largest bakes, so this isn’t the time for a romantic dinner for two—invite the neighbors. Clambake broth is so well-loved that Marty from Heinen’s has noticed people bringing empty growlers to bakes so they can take a stash home.

Most folks, including Kevin and all the fishmongers we spoke with, say the first layer of ingredient above the broth should be the clams, bedded down for what will likely be a good two hours in the steamer. Adam is of a different school of thought, preferring to place the clams on top of the bake after things have already gotten going. He likes to steam the clams until they just open up, whereas most folks prefer steaming them into submission. Either way results in tender clams.

As for what type of clam to use, everyone claimed the middleneck as offering the ideal meat to tenderness ratio, but larger topnecks are just fine, and some old school clambakers even prefer the still larger cherrystones. No one bothers purging the clams, which tend to come rinsed and bagged. The occasional piece of grit is part of the game. And while most enjoy wild clams from New England or Canada, Marty likes her clams farm-raised in Virginia.

Next comes the chicken, which should come in the form of seasoned half chickens. Always. You’ll know the chicken is done when the meat starts pulling away from the bone. Even though the chicken is cooked through, it’s traditional to give them a quick turn on the grill. While some prefer separate chicken just for grilling, Kevin advised us on the traditional approach, removing the chicken halves from the pot and allowing them cool before finishing them on the grill. And what to do while the chicken is over the coals? Throw a whole bunch of bagged mussels in the pot. They’re done in minutes, make a great appetizer, and contribute to the depth of the broth.

Above the chicken generally are sweet potatoes. Although again nothing is canon, Euclid Fish stacks the chicken and sweet potatoes next to each other, and Marty from Heinen’s puts the chicken on top of the sweet potatoes. However you set up your steamer pot, the sweet potatoes should be just shy of tender throughout when the chicken is ready to be removed. And with the chicken out of the pot, in goes shucked corn to cook through while the sweet potatoes finish.

Other tidbits we can offer include the finer points of etiquette at a bake. Unlike most gatherings, here it’s customary for hosts to collect money from the attendees to cover the bakes. So being asked “how many dozen?” or “any mussels?” a few days before the bake is pretty typical. It’s all part of the egalitarian and communal nature of our clambake. Want to be a hero? Bring crock pots. Bring all your crock pots, and extension cords too. Melted butter, clam broth, New England clam chowder . . . the list goes on. There’s never enough gently warmed crockery.

All told, a large steamer over a serious propane burner should yield a completed bake on the short side of two hours, starting with heating a packed steamer until billows of steam escape from under the lid, to maintaining a constant steamy environment in the pot until everything is done. Peeking under the lid will cost you steam, so we suggest you don’t even think about lifting the lid to check on things until you’ve had good steam for at least 30 minutes.

Once everything is done, the clams, chicken, sweet potato, corn, and broth are served up with melted butter, rolls, coleslaw, and whatever other sides you can dream up, including the aforementioned New England clam chowder.

Always New England clam chowder.

That chowder, along with plenty of family, friends, and cold beer, are some of the few universals in this beautifully mysterious tradition that is the Northeast Ohio clambake.