Clam boils are a polarizing topic.

It’s like the Greeks and the Turks arguing about who makes the best baklava.

Some purists say it has to be a clam bake, with a pit dug on the beach, a hot wood fire to heat the stones, seaweed to steam and release it’s salty goodness into the food, clams, lobsters, corn on the cob and a burlap cover to keep in the heat. Not an easy thing to do on a public beach, and it requires hours of prep.

Others are OK with a clam boil but differ about what goes in it. My husband’s family claims to have made clam boils in New Jersey, but when he started talking about cherrystones and chicken in the same pot, the New Englanders all but booted him from the room.

Survey people in the area where I was born and raised, and you’ll come up with about the same list: Steamers (soft shell clams), sausage (plain old breakfast links), hot dogs, white fish (cod or haddock), Portuguese linguica, sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes, and if there’s room at the top of the pot, corn on the cob. There’s never room, so if it’s fresh corn season, we just cook it up separately.

We never had lobster unless a fisherman owed my dad money. And because most of the folks I grew up with didn’t have money for lobster, I wonder if that’s how the white fish ended up in the pot. A happy accident, as it’s one of my favorite things in the clam boil.

When I was a kid, the fish would be cut up and wrapped in parchment or foil while the clams were “cleaned.” How do you clean a steamer? Rinse 'em, put 'em in a tub of cold water and sprinkle in a good dose of black pepper. Makes 'em pee and spit out dirt. Seriously.

Once the fish was cut and wrapped, we’d then make individual packets in cheesecloth to mete out the goods to each attendee; a hot dog, a piece of linguica, 2 sausage links, a packet of fish, a white and a sweet potato, and an onion. This was a good system for a big crowd, and the food stayed hot.

Clams were served in a separate dish after the pot was emptied and the clams were revealed. I noticed there was always horse-trading among the guests – a hot dog for a sausage, a sweet potato for an onion. And when that was over, folks were back at the serving table looking for seconds. So, we started to do it differently: We made individual pouches of all the ingredients and put them on big serving platters so people could get just what they wanted and there was always enough for seconds.

So now that the cheesecloth bundles are all prepared and the clams are clean, it’s time to assemble this bad boy. The clams go at the bottom, then the potatoes, onions, and meats atop the clams (a foil tin for the linguica so the whole calm boil isn’t too heavy in paprika), then the fish, and an onion and one of each of the potatoes on the top to test for doneness. As you can see, we couldn’t get a kernel of corn in there, never mind a few ears.

Fill the base 2/3 of the way with water, season to your liking with salt, pepper, beer if you so choose, and anything else you desire, place the pot on top and set it on the stove to boil. A camp stove outside is always a good choice. Then you can kick back, drink beer and wait for the boil to be ready while you socialize. Maybe make a pot of clam chowder or stuffed quahogs as an appetizer to go with that beer.

When the onions and potatoes at the top of the pot are tender, usually about an hour after the pot begins to boil, it’s time to eat. Melted butter and clam broth are set at each place, the food and clams are put into platters to be passed around.

While we eat we reminisce of memorable clam boils and clam bakes of the past, and try to figure out who has Uncle Eddie’s copper clam steamer, the one we could use to make a clam boil for 30 people, and then we eat some more. And when we’re done, we roll everything up and toss it in the trash, as you can’t have a clam boil without paper plates and a paper tablecloth to contain the inevitable mess. And maybe in an hour, we’ll have digested enough to eat some watermelon.

 

Clam Boil Ingredients

This list can vary based on guests’ likes, and how much they like to eat. I usually poll the crowd as some folks won’t eat an onion or a potato, and only want a few clams, not a quart. But my standard follows.

 

Per Person:

½ Qt. steamers (soft shell clams)

¼ lb. white fish wrapped in parchment paper

2 sausages

2 2-inch pieces of linguica

1 hot dog

1 red potato

1 peeled onion

1/3 of a large sweet potato

1 ear of corn

 

Assemble all of the items into piles (except the corn) and wrap each loosely in cheesecloth, tying it into a bundle. Assemble in layers: Clams, potatoes and onions, sausage and hot dogs, linguica in a foil tin, fish and 1 each potato and onion on the top.

Fill the base 2/3’s full of water and seasonings (beer, salt, pepper, old bay, crushed hot pepper). Put the pot of goodies atop the base and put on the stove to boil. Check for doneness after about an hour of boiling. In the meantime boil a pot of water for the corn and cook the corn when the boil is done; it will be ready when everything is dished out. Melt butter to serve with the clams and clam broth. Unbuckle your belt and enjoy. Oh, and be prepared to hose yourselves down afterward. Clam boils are a messy business.

Ah! Summer!

Deb Pepin Bullock is a SouthCoast native, author, traveler and foodie who lives in Fairhaven. Follow her blog at deborahdishes.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/deborahwhodishes or on Twitter @deborahdishes.