One beautiful summer afternoon, Joan and I were invited to a clambake on Shelter Island. Our friends had a wonderful vacation home overlooking Coecles Harbor. The view of sailboats and motor boats on the Harbor completed the panorama. The feast of lobsters, clams, steamers, and corn on the cob was amazing and the flavor of the seafood steamed in a large pot with rockweed was truly special.
Joan and I had an undeniable love affair with Shelter Island and about twenty years ago we came very close to buying a rustic ranch home overlooking the golf course at Gardiner’s Bay. Unfortunately, our dream never came to fruition.
Our family had a long history connecting us to Shelter Island. An uncle of Mom’s had a lima bean farm on the Island many years ago. I remember riding on a tractor between the rows of lima bean plants and feeling like a “big shot”. Lima beans were an important part of the farming economy on Shelter Island many years ago.
Although our family hailed from Brooklyn, my father and his two brothers, Frank and Ralph, bought a two story vacation home on Shelter Island in the 1930’s. It was a very attractive frame house with a porch in front and a large garden area in the rear, and was located not far from Mashomack Preserve. The families would frequently vacation there together and I heard from my Mom that they thoroughly enjoyed those times of relaxation and play.
My Mom also related to me a frightening episode which occurred in those years. I was one year old and Mike was two, and one summer afternoon Mom took Mike and me upstairs for a nap. The bedroom had two twin beds separated by a carpeted space. Mom and I were in one bed and Mike was in the other.
The room below was a comfortably furnished living room, and this afternoon, my Dad, Uncle Frank, Uncle Ralph and my uncles’ invited guest, Dr. Marchese were chatting excitedly. The men were planning on going grouse hunting the following day.
Dr. Marchese very proudly began demonstrating his brand new and ornately engraved Beretta shotgun. He held it up, and with a dramatic flourish pulled the trigger! The following “BOOM” shocked everyone! The blast tore a hole in the floor between the two beds and created an enormous chaotic scene. The men raced upstairs and found Mom hysterical and Mike and me screaming loudly. Fortunately, not one of us was physically injured.
Dr. Marchese, probably almost as shaken up as Mom and Dad, effusively and repeatedly apologized for the terrible mishap, bade everyone goodbye, and rushed off in his Packard, never to be seen again!
This was a memory that would rather have been forgotten over the years.
Of course, we have so many more pleasant memories of Shelter Island—weekends at the House on Chase Creek; bicycling around the Island enjoying its beauty; a stay at Rams Head Inn and dining on the patio, just to mention a few.
Joan and I moved into our home in 1965, an old estate in the village of Islip, overlooking the Great South Bay. The view was spectacular and the Robert Moses Bridge was always in our sight. . A lawn spanned from the house to the bulkhead, and an unusual perk to our property was an island the locals called “Sand Island”. It was separated from our dock by a small sliver of water. It could be reached either by jumping from our bulkhead onto the white sandy beach or it could be reached by boat.
Joan and I always dreamed of having an old fashioned clambake on “our island”. We talked and read about it for a few years and finally felt we were ready to do it! We began accumulating the necessary items: we went to a masonry yard on the North shore to get large stones. We loaded up the trunk of the car and drove home very slowly because with any bump- the rear would screech !! I also accumulated a large supply of dry firewood.
To prepare for our first clambake, I dug a 4 foot diameter pit in the sand to a depth of 2-3 feet. I then worked like a mason and lined the pit with the stones, pressing them in firmly. On the day of the clambake party, I loaded the pit with firewood and kept the fire going for about 2-3 hours. As the fire was dying down, we raked out the embers, leaving the pit with very hot stones.
Then the symphony began: layers of fresh, wet seaweed were thrown onto the stones creating a “s-s-s-s-s” sound and a pleasant ocean smell; a sheet wet with seawater was laid over the bed of seaweed. At this point, all the seafood- lobsters, clams, steamers,as well as corn in the husks were arranged on a wire mesh and lowered into the pit by men holding wire handles. Another wet sheet covered the seafood and finally, a large tarpaulin was thrown over the pit; all the edges of the tarp were then secured either with sand or stones to prevent the steam from escaping.
While the steam was performing its magic on the seafood, the party continued on the lawn. We played bocce and volleyball, all the while sneaking a look at the clambake site. Gradually, the tarp which lay flat over the pit at the start, began to rise up and billow as a result of the trapped steam.
After about three hours, with the tarp ballooned up, we all approached the clambake pit. When the tarp was removed, there arose the unmistakable , wonderful aroma of steamed seafood and seaweed that is characteristic of an authentic New England clambake!!
The clambake was a great success-everyone exclaiming that these were the tastiest lobsters and steamers they had ever eaten. Encouraged and enthusiastic, Joan and I planned on having another clambake after a few weeks.
Two days later, Joan called me at the office—in panic mode!! She said that she had read in a seafood cookbook that the stones of a clambake can be used only ONCE!! They could not retain heat any longer than one time. What to do? Another painful trek to the North shore for more stones?
Fortunately, I was able to contact a man on Shelter Island who does similar clambakes. When I spoke to him, he said “ Yep! That’s correct- the stones of a clambake can only be used one time. Last year, some feller used them a second time, and after about an hour, he saw the lobsters crawlin’ out from under the tarp!” Well, that was good enough for me! It could have resulted in quite a calamity in a few weeks.
Unfortunately, however, it did necessitate another trip to the mason yard, lugging the stones to the island, preparing another pit, and having to endure yet another wonderful clambake party—Long Island Style!!