My after-school job as a teenager was doing odd jobs for the local handyman. He was the go-to guy when you needed a ditch dug, manure spread, sod laid, trees topped, firewood cut, split, delivered, stacked or anything else that required manual labor. He paid a bunch of us guys to do the hard work for a dollar an hour. That was good money back in the 1950s when a buck would buy you four gallons of Esso Extra High-Test gasoline! It was grueling work and there was only one task we looked forward to. He paid us to host the summer clambakes!
The little town I grew up in was on the Atlantic Coast, just 50 miles from New York City by land, or 19 miles by water. Our year-round population of about 2,000 swelled to 8,000 in the summer. In the 1850s, it became a summer resort for city dwellers looking to escape the heat. (This was before air conditioning, of course). The tourists enjoyed many attractions including a clambake on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. We would prepare and serve this feast for more than a hundred people. It was the hardest (and most fun) job of the year.
We began at first light by digging a pit down at the beach just above the high tide level. It was about two feet deep, three feet across and 10 or 12 feet long. Next, we lined it with rocks and built a roaring fire of seasoned hardwoods, which would burn for several hours.
While the fire was burning, we waded along the shore and gathered up wet seaweed. Once the fire burned down to embers, we raked them out and lined the pit with the seaweed. Then we put in several dozen cut-up chickens in cloth bags, covered them with more seaweed. Next came several bushels of fresh corn in its husks. After that was a layer of live lobsters, and several bushels of soft clams in burlap sacks. We covered the whole thing with more seaweed and then threw a couple of buckets of seawater over it. On top of it all came a canvas tarp soaked in seawater. We weighed down the edges of the tarp with rocks and sand to seal in the steam. During the next several hours the tarp would puff up from the steam, so we knew it was cooking.
Meanwhile, the beer truck would show up delivering several kegs of beer and a “sheep trough,” a galvanized container about six feet long that held three beer kegs at a time. Soon the ice truck arrived delivering several hundred pounds of ice in “quarter blocks.” I never figured out if these got their name because they weigh 25 pounds or cost a quarter each. We chopped up the ice to surround the beer kegs and to fill a long trough on one of the serving tables where we would be shucking hard clams.
(Note: “soft” clams or “steamers” have a snout and are dug up along the shore at low tide with a sort of heavy pitchfork. “Hard” clams are raked up from the bottom in deep water. The soft clams are always steamed while the hard clams are eaten raw, steamed, or minced up in chowder, clams casino, or many other delicacies. I have shucked enough clams to last a lifetime and now I still enjoy them, but I pay someone else to do the shucking).
The shucking is where we really earned our hourly pay. You have a “shucking tool” which is just a heavy-duty paring knife with a dull blade except for the very tip. Wearing a heavy rubber glove (or a bunch of adhesive tape on your thumb) for protection you pry the clamshell open, discard the top shell, cut the muscle loose from the bottom shell, then place it on the bed of ice for the diners to help themselves. We also sliced up countless tomatoes, cucumbers, and several dozen watermelons. By then it was time to start serving.
We opened the pit and dumped the soft clams into long trays on the table for people to help themselves with paper plates. At the end of the table was a large urn of melted butter and paper cups which everyone could pick up to dip their clams into. It was a messy operation, but you could wash off in the bay at any time, usually getting your feet wet in the process. While everyone was occupied with the clams, we hauled out the rest of the steamed food with additional butter for the lobsters and corn and salt and pepper. People came back for seconds and thirds and the mood was festive.
By midafternoon we started the cleanup, which was not a problem because it was just packing up our equipment and picking up watermelon rinds, corn cobs and paper plates. We left the clam and lobster shells for the seagulls.
Now the best part: the tip jar! At the end of the serving table, we primed a big glass jar with a couple of coins and a dollar bill. Most of the people going through the line would add to it and by the end of the day, we had enough to split up $20 to $30 for each of us! And if there was a quart or two of beer left in each of the “empty” kegs we took care of that too. I’m sure the boss knew what we were up to, but our parents never found out! Not bad for a day at the beach!
Epilogue: Fast forward one generation … As teenagers, both of my sons worked at my brother’s marina/bar/restaurant. They were always promptly at work every Monday morning. This surprised me because they were not so punctual the rest of the week. Come to find out years later that the restaurant decanted their “house” wine from big 15-liter “Bag in Box” containers. There was always a pint or two of wine left in the bag that could be salvaged when it wound up in the dumpster! The apple does not fall far from the tree!