One of the rarely discussed downsides of atheism is how you just don’t feel fully invested in the celebration of many public holidays. Sure, you might say, “how many people are really thinking about the saviour’s birth when Christmas rolls around?” Ok, not many and I know for many of my Jewish friends it brings out a range of mixed feelings. Give me Thanksgiving anytime. Gather up family and friends and engage in some serious gluttony, but still, not without the native peoples, looming like the elephant in the room who doesn’t want your cranberry relish and doesn’t view casino gambling on tribal lands as proper compensation for the destruction of their civilizations. New Years Eve? Kind of arbitrary, don’t you think? Labor Day? What am I a commie? Not really but thanks for throwing me that bone Daddy Warbucks, you can go back to guiltlessly jetting around in your Gulfstream now. I do love Boston’s own Evacuation Day, a day commemorating the departure of the British garrison in Charlestown, which conveniently falls on St Patrick’s Day thus enabling Brahmin pols to rub one in the nose of the Irish. Go ahead you Micks, get drunk…on our big day. Kind of backfired because the Irish don’t care, they just got pissed anyway and now so does everyone else.
My point, if I really have to have one, is that sometimes you just have to make your own holiday. Fans of the TV sitcom Seinfeld adored the episode about the invented holiday Festivus. Festivus for the rest of us. In the show’s mythology George’s father Frank created Festivus as a reaction to the commercialization and crassness of Christmas. Key elements of the holiday were: the Festivus pole, an aluminum pole displayed unadorned, the Airing of Grievances during the Festivus meal when family members do just that to one another with the year’s dirty laundry and Feats of Strength. Hilarity ensued…and imitation, for many people, in varying degrees of seriousness, have adopted the celebration of Festivus as a “real” secular holiday. Little do most of these people know, Dan O’Keefe, who was a Seinfeld staff writer actually had a family Festivus celebration dating back to 1966. With all of this celebration of a fake but real seeming holiday that turned out to be more real than fake after all, why not remove ourselves from being passive observers of sitcoms and just create our our damn holidays? Say you love deer hunting, or knitting or bird watching well make a holiday that revolves around that then. Create a codified set of rituals and repeat them year after year because if I’ve learned anything from my study of Fox News it’s that if you repeat something over and over again people will start to believe it is real. So like the broad acceptance of the “birther” controversy or climate science denial, I have through repetition created my own holiday with a full set of traditions that surround it, but because I don’t love to hate the President, I chose to celebrate other things that I do love, namely beaches and seafood.
This was not conscious undertaking. You might say that it was a creeper holiday. A lurker holiday. A tradition unplanned, organically taking shape over the years until, bam, you realize, “this has become like a real holiday”. I’m sure that the same thing happened with Christmas. You know, one year you’re in some cave wearing a hair shirt and self-flagellating with joy over the arrival of the one who would release you from such earthly discomfort, next thing you know you’ve adopted pagan winter solstice symbolism to placate the newly christianized pagan tribes of Europe. What? Holy Council of Trent Batman! How’d that happen? Fast forward to the present and you’re trampling people to death at Wal-Mart to get a sweet deal on a 50 inch flat-screen. It’s still Christmas right? It just evolved. What? You don’t believe in evolution? You want to teach the controversy? That’s not really what I’m getting at here. I can’t stop you from sticking your head in the sand, just have the courtesy to do it at your own holiday. Look: the point is that the Clambake, like Christmas, had an inauspicious beginning, just substitute a summer rental shack on the west end of Nantucket for the manger of Bethlehem and you are on the way my friend.
It began quite simply. I invited a bunch of my Boston friends to come and camp out for a weekend in the yard behind the shack that my wife and I were renting in Madaket one summer. We spent the time playing on Madaket beach all day and then in the evenings, back home, drinking beer and grilling, to the point of ruin, a bunch of seafood. Everyone had a great time.
Over the next winter, fate, in the form of a Time Life cookbook, placed its irresistible hand
upon my shoulder and pushed, for in this book was a photo that would change me from an ordinary man to the priest of the feast now called Bakemaster. The photo was a depiction of a tradition Maine clambake and I knew as soon as I saw it that I must do with food what these men in their rubber boots and oil skin jackets were doing. So compelling was the image that like a character in on of those trippy Carlos Castenada novels, I left my corporeal body and found my spirit self being projected through the astral plane out over the waters of Nantucket harbor to the spit of land called Coatue where I came to rest on the 5 fingered point. There I was approached by a strange being, one footed and clad in a shell, a strange and terrible bivalve claiming to hail from the cold gulf beyond the curve of space… or first point, for it was hard to understand its strange language of burps and gurgles. Then to my bewildered eyes appeared a beautiful, shining image, a tableau, an epicurean gathering in the sand, a smoking pit filled with shellfish and eelgrass, naked children frolicking like sea-nymphs, a beer in every hand and song flowing from those lips not already filled with beer and some which were. And then to me the strange one said, “Behold this happy feast, for I, Rastus, crustacean o’ doom, harbinger of clambakes, command that you honor the great sea from which your prehistoric ancestors crawled” (you can see how we lose the creationists right about here) “with a great celebration in the form which I have showed you.”
“But great and wise Rastus, before whom I tremble, because you are the freakiest looking thing I’ve ever seen, including on acid trips, how will I bring so many and so much across this narrow sea as you command?”
“Fool”, he answered, “Buy a boat!” Following this command he began spraying my face with a warm, salty discharge from within his shell.
As I slowly regained my faculties, I realized that I had dozed off in a chair, as I often will do on lazy winter afternoons, and that my dog Hattie was, in fact, licking my face. I have never been, however, one to take a strange vision lightly or to discount the possibility that an ancient Lovecraftian being might have a key role for me in its inscrutable, other-worldly scheming, so that spring I bought a sailboat.
Many heard the call that summer and a respectable percentage of those who did came to Nantucket. They came by air and sea. They came by bus, car and bike. Supplies were laid in. The yard filled with a jolly encampment of clambakers. We were ready to chart a new path in collective summer revels.
Things did not go off without a hitch. We started well with a crack team sailing over to Coatue early and setting up a base camp. Using large tarps and obtained posts we fashioned shelter from the elements and more importantly, a shady place to put the keg. Religiously copying from what I’d observed in the Time Life cookbook photograph, I made a large bed of charcoal, over that I laid stones which I had painstakingly gathered in advance (just try finding a hundred fist sized or larger rocks lying around Nantucket), on top of the stones came wood framed boxes with wire mesh bottom full of food (corn, potatoes, steamers and lobsters) and topped with eel grass and next the whole thing was covered with a tarp. As there was no-one else around who could handle the sailboat very well, I then occupied myself with shuttling 40-50 people over from Pocomo. After what seemed like a good long time for cooking to happen I pulled back the tarp to reveal a lot of uncooked food and a bed of charcoal nearly extinguished. Clearly there was some old school knowledge which I had not gleaned from the photo or from my Castenadean visions, something to do with oxygen and its efficacy in creating proper conditions for combustion.
It was all hands on deck. Beer could only sustain this horde for so long and those with their wits about them sensed that we were careening toward a Malthusian feast of soylent green if things didn’t get a-firing up. We pulled apart the whole pile, focusing our efforts on re-igniting the coal bed. Once we had a red hot fire going we set the boxes of food directly on the heat hoping that the eel grass on top would serve to keep things from burning to a crisp. It worked and thus we ate seafood rather than each other that day. The key lessons learned were: 1) adaptability was going to be crucial and 2) this was a bigger undertaking than a lone Bakemaster could handle.
The tide had turned, literally. One of my favorite Clambake photos ever is from that day, in it a crew of holdouts keeps the tide from inundating the keg tent with a sand dike that would have made any 10 year old boy proud. Fortune was now in our favor. Luck was on our side. Late arrivals Boomba and Skeeter had shown up in their father’s motorboats and those craft in combination with my sailboat and Spongey’s hobie cat enabled us to evacuate Coatue before the inexorable tide swallowed us up.
Nowadays this are different. Nowadays trays of food flow smoothly from the Bake pit to the hungry Bakers like aliens coming off the assembly line in that Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s pitted against Marvin the Martian. These trays are laid out on tables of recycled and pilfered wood assembled by skilled Clambake craftsmen. Most importantly, nowadays my friends and me have more reliable boats not that this has entirely removed the element of surprise from the proceedings.
Know this: the Clambake is no longer a simple afternoon of eating seafood. No, like the hegemonist 2 month long Christmas season, it has expanded to now encompass many days. Important symbols and rituals have also come into being making for a Clambake calendar of celebration. It all begins with the Gathering of the Bivalves, on Thursday or Friday early arrivals head for the shellfish beds of the west end and gather up as many clams and mussels as possible, conditions permitting, attempts are also made at catching striped bass and bluefish. Friday night there is a dinner of pork (ribs or shoulder) during which good weather ju-ju is earnestly prayed for by all campers. On Saturday we decamp to Fat Ladies beach for a day of surfing (if there are waves), cooking out and general beach partying. During this time the bulk of Clambakers not yet arrived, show up and are greeted enthusiastically by their comrades in Bake. Saturday evening is The Big Dinner, a true smorgasbord. An adhoc shucking squad lays out some raw bar as cocktail hour commences. My wife with the help of her crack kitchen team prepares an amazing assortment of dips, spreads, salad and sides with the intent of complimenting but usually overshadowing the chowder and grilled fish that I prepare. A toast is made to all Bakers present and absent with further bold assertions of weather control made then we feast. Campfires are lit, instruments produced and those among us with talent or merely emboldened by liquor sing into the night. The next morning the Action Committee, a rotating band of Clambake regulars, springs in motion, loading boats and trucks and heading for Coatue. Once base camp has been established (which invariably involves some kind of mechanical and equipment failures being MacGyvered through), the keg is tapped and the team enjoys the ceremonial first beer. Meanwhile back home a pancake breakfast is served to the awakening Bakers.
One of the most beloved and hazardous of Clambake traditions is that of the Jelly Mile. Started years ago by Ram, who just didn’t feel like waiting for a boat ride, an intrepid band of swimmers brave the jelly fish and powerboat infested waters of the harbor and swim from Pocomo to Coatue. After a long day of gorging on seafood , playing games, hootenanny and general conviviality, we decamp for Hummock Pond Rd where my wife orders a pile of pizzas for those with the foresight to have planned a Monday departure, all of which somehow manage to get eaten before the Bake master returns. The end of the Clambake is signaled by the Monday afternoon ritual of stragglers being delivered to the Steamship wharf and ordered to leave.
I could write a history book at this point, recording the events of each individual Clambake, the highs and the lows, but I’m busy, and blogs are way more pithy and au courant. Through the years much has changed in the Clambake. The tarp tent has gotten much larger. Baskets of all wire have replaced the old wooden boxes. Beloved old boats have been upgraded to newer more modern craft. Legendary feats of strength, cunning and ingenuity have time and again saved the day. New faces have replaced those gone never to return and unexpected old friends appear from far corners of the Earth to much rejoicing. Cooking and staging techniques have been honed and perfected and as they have a tight circle of assistant bakemasters has emerged to pull it all together. Over the years, love has bloomed, friendships have formed, marriage vows have been taken and time after time islander and mainlander pull together as one, enjoying a pleasure sublime and to most outside the circle of Bake unknown or simply shrouded in myth with one common thread binding it all: the celebration of a holiday of our own making.