Mock pit-cooking: A classic seafood dinner from the grill

The clambake is the contemporary version of pit cooking, a tradition passed on to the early European settlers by the Penobscot Indians.

Pit cooking is a festive way to prepare a blowout seafood dinner, New England–style, said Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier in Maine Classics (Running Press). In Maine, the Penobscot Indians passed the tradition on to early European settlers, but “every indigenous culture seems to have had a method of cooking that involved burying the bounty of the land and sea, and cooking with hot rocks, wood, and whatever else was around for fuel.” The Penobscot dug pits into clay soil, lined them with stones, and layered aromatic leaves above the fire and the food, thus enhancing the flavors of the meat and seafood.

The concept lives on in Maine in what’s called a clambake or shore dinner. Pits are dug in the sand or in a yard, filled with coal or firewood, then packed with layers of clams, lobsters, mussels, potatoes, sausage, and, last but not least, seaweed. Since not everyone lives near a beach they’re allowed to cook on, some Mainers maintain fire pits in their yards or settle for a stove-top “New England clam boil.” We’ve come up with the following “middle-of-the-road version,” which requires only a patio kettle grill. Well, that, and up to 10 pounds of seaweed. If you’re unable to gather your own, ask your fishmonger to throw some in with your shellfish order.

Recipe of the week

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Classic shore dinner

(For fire pit)


1 25-lb bag of charcoal

1 large bundle of dry firewood

1 large bucket of river rocks or pumice stones

10 lbs fresh seaweed

(For food)

12 small new potatoes, scrubbed

6 ears sweet corn, husk on, soaked overnight in salted water

6 chorizo sausage links

Six 1¼-lb lobsters

36 littleneck clams

Start a fire in your kettle grill using newspaper and charcoal. Once charcoal is flaming, add firewood and allow it to burn down until you have a large amount of coals. Place river rocks or pumice stones around coals in a ring and place some in the middle, being careful not to extinguish the fire. Add half of the seaweed on top.

Place all of the food on top of the seaweed. Cover with remaining seaweed and steam until ingredients are cooked, about 1 hour.

Remove seaweed and take out the food. Serve each guest 1 lobster, 6 clams, 1 sausage link, 1 ear of corn, and 2 potatoes. Serves six.

To make drawn butter:

Cut 1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter into cubes. Slowly heat butter in small saucepan until it melts completely and solids have foamed to the top, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Skim foam from top or pour through a fine sieve until you reach the white solids. Discard solids and use the drawn, or clarified, butter as a dip for the cooked seafood.

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