How Did Cleveland Come to Love Clambakes So Much?


Chef John Comella of the Euclid Fish Company has assistance sorting clams for a catered clambake in 1964 - CLEVELAND MEMORY PROJECT
  • Cleveland Memory Project
  • Chef John Comella of the Euclid Fish Company has assistance sorting clams for a catered clambake in 1964

"I don't think any other part of the country has a fall clambake season like ours," Bill Gullo, director of purchasing at Catanese Classic Seafood in the Flats, told us last year. "I had a clam supplier tell me a couple years back that more clams were being shipped to Northeast Ohio during September and October than the rest of the country combined. I would think that that was still true today."

It's clear that Cleveland loves its clambakes. What's less clear is why and how the typically New England feast became so entrenched in our regional foodways.

Some draw a straight line back to the well-heeled industrialists of the early 20th century who summered in Northeast Ohio, often hosting elaborate feasts with fresh seafood shipped directly from the East Coast. For decades, clambakes have served as the ideal vehicle for political fundraisers, a delicious way to replenish the campaign coffers on the backs of bivalves. Gullo, who's been in the local fish business for 40 years, posits that the practice was promoted by retailers like him who were tasked with selling fish.

Everyone has a theory, and there are overlaps and plausible partial-explanations everywhere.

Edible Cleveland has a great attempt at buttoning down an answer, though naturally, there's no firm resolution. The Rockefellers and other society crowd members of Cleveland loved a party and clams proved social fare, but some argue "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 [McIntyre of Kate's Fish ]says that is born of logistics. Clams were shipped to Cleveland by rail in unrefrigerated cars, and cool weather ensured minimal degradation in quality."

Thrillist goes further down the historical rabbit hole in its tale, which gives a big nod to Chef John Comella of the Euclid Fish Company (pictured above) for formalizing what became the core of the Cleveland clambake menu.

Regardless how it began, the "Cleveland Clambake" is a beloved fall tradition.

While clams aren't considered a seasonal food product as they are generally available year-round, there are other factors that make autumn ideal for bakes. Customary accompaniments like sweet corn and potatoes are seasonal, with their harvests lining up with the events. Those thick and creamy chowders are well suited to sweater weather. And the act of wrangling a giant steamer pot over a roaring propane burner is made bearable by the cooler temps.

A traditional Cleveland clambake consists of a cup of chowder, a dozen clams, half a chicken, an ear of corn, one sweet or regular potato, coleslaw and rolls, but deviations abound. Some folks like to toss in links of kielbasa or andouille sausage, others opt to sub out the chicken for crab legs or whole lobster, and pretty much every single clam lover can easily devour an extra dozen or two of those briny bivalves.

"That's what makes the Cleveland clambake so unique," noted Gullo. "You talk to 10 different people, you'll get 10 different bakes."

Seafood retailers like Catanese Classic (1600 Merwin Ave., 216-696-0080) and Euclid Fish (7839 Enterprise Dr., Mentor, 440-951-6448) offer effortless just-add-water clambake kits, steamer pots pre-loaded with all the ingredients. For big boils, it's wise to rent, borrow or buy a propane-powered burner. DIYers simply can purchase the components themselves, layer them into a large pot with a steamer insert, and cook it inside or out.

It's prudent to cook the chicken separately so you don't wind up with overcooked seafood or under-cooked chicken. And for heaven's sake, don't overlook the broth, that flavorful elixir that forms below, which is delicious on its own or when used as a base for a future chowder or bisque.

Clambakes of 2020 certainly lack the social atmosphere of years past, but there's still plenty of time to do one on your own and some Cleveland restaurants have clambakes scheduled for takeout or socially-distanced in-person dining through the end of October if you're looking for someone else to take care of the work.

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