“This Was a Real Nice Clambake”

By Janine Sobeck, Dramaturg

The beginning of Act II of Carousel starts with these lyrics:

Oh, this was a real nice clambake,
We’re mighty glad we came.
The vittles we et
Were good, you bet,
The company was the same.
Our hearts are warm, our bellies are full,
And we are feeling prime.
This was a real nice clambake,
And we all had a real good time.

Clambakes are one of New England’s most beloved traditions. Clambakes celebrated not only all the delicious seafood found along the New England coastline, but the beauty of nature.  It was a time for the community to gather together, and clambakes were often held on festive occasions. In fact, the clambake has been called “the most colorful, joyous, and festive of American feasts.” (1)

Winslow Homer "Sea-Side Sketch," 1873

Winslow Homer “Sea-Side Sketch,” 1873

Contrary to their name, clambakes did not just serve clams (though they were definitely a featured item!).  Favorite clambake foods include lobster, mussels, and crabs, which are complimented by other dishes such as potatoes, sausage or corn on the cob.  The most traditional way to cook clams at a clambake were steamed, but two other popular methods of preparation were in a chowder and fried.

Traditional New England Clambake

Traditional New England Clambake

To steam a clam, the feast-goers start by collecting rockweed (a type of seaweed) and stones.  Once these items have been collected, a fire pit is dug where the cooking takes place. In the middle of the pit the stones are placed, along with the wood and kindling.  Once the stones are red hot, the ashes are swept in between the cracks, and a layer of wet rockweed is placed on top of the stones. The clams (and any other food) are placed directly on top of the rockweed.  Layers of food and rockweed are alternated, and then covered with a canvas drenched in sea water.  At this point, the clams and other food are allowed to steam for several hours.

Oscar Hammerstein II confesses that when he started to write the lyrics for “This Was Real Nice Clambake” (which was actually re-purposed from a cut Oklahoma! song called “A Real Nice Hayride”), he had no idea what a clambake was really like. His subsequent lyrics were based on research he did into the subject.  However, several of his New England friends had to correct him on proper clambake traditions and food.  One of the biggest disputes was whether lobsters were slit down the front or the back.  At one point in the song, Hammerstein wrote the lyric as “We slit ’em down the back/And peppered ’em good.” However, his friend told him that lobsters were always slit down the front. Hammerstein sent his researcher to a seafood restaurant in order to discover the truth.  When the seafood restaurant said they were always slit down the back, Hammerstein decided that there must be a lingering dispute on the subject, and so kept his original lyric.

The clambake in Carousel not only honors this longstanding tradition, but it gives the audience the chance to see all the different members of this Maine community gather together and enjoy the beauties and culinary delicacies of the New England coast.

 

 

1. Carlin, Joseph “A Bit of Clam History”