My wife’s longtime friend Christopher Scott Martin (that’s three first names!) is the author, with David Norton Stone, of Rhode Island Clam Shacks, pub- lished in April under the Images of America imprint of Arcadia Publishing. We went to the Providence Public Library on Tuesday evening to hear the two of them discuss their book.
Their discussion, garnished with stuffies cooked up by the library’s director of community programming, Louise Moulton, made me want to go out and visit a clam shack for dinner. Not necessarily for clamcakes but for stuffies (with the taste of Tonia’s still lingering). We did not, alas. Maybe tonight! Iggy’s beckons at Oakland Beach and McCormick & Schmick’s has fine hefty ones at the Biltmore, not to mention Hem- enways – though the latter two are hardly to be placed in the clamshack category!
The word irresistible well captures the quality of this book and books of its sort, with their collections of photos and postcards of rustic places and popular attractions that spark an emotion- al kinship in so many. Photos of the workers, patrons and menus (with their heartrending prices!) cannot fail to tickle one’s fascination. Here, from the 1950s, is Lobster Shore Dinner No. 3 (the fanciest) on the Crescent Park Shore Dinner menu, for $4, Rhode Island sales tax of 4 percent included:
- Old Fashioned Rhode Island Clam Chowder
- Crescent Park’s Famous Clam Cakes
- Steamed Clams with Drawn Butter
- Fish Fried or Baked with French Fries
- With Petukquineg Stuffing
- Cole Slaw Salad
- Sweet Corn in Season
- Whole Lobster
- Rolls and Brown Bread – Creamery Butter
- Sliced Cold Watermelon
A major theme of Martin and Stone’s book and lecture is how the clambake evolved by way of the roof upheld by wooden posts to the shore dinner hall and the clam shack into some of today’s most popular Rhode Island seafood restaurants. Yum! In their introduction they write:
Initially, clambakes were cooked and eaten outdoors, their rusticity part of the charm, and at one political bake in 1840 in Buttonwoods, men brought their own plates, bowls, spoons, knives, and forks, and ate under the trees. Later, shore dinners were cooked outside but served at long tables in dining halls that emphasized water views over elegance, and where the traditional fare of a clambake was supplemented by fish or clam chowder, clam cakes, lobsters, brown bread, ice cream, watermelon and Indian pudding. Eventually, full-fledged amusement parks grew up around the most popular shore dinner destinations, like Rocky Point and Crescent Park.
The image of Rhode Island politicians of old and their supporters tromping down to the shore for a clambake brings to mind how little has changed in Rhode Island politics. It may seem to embrace the trappings of modernity, but scrape back the skin and you see that a lot of the old back-slapping and “circle the wagons” instincts at play. The antics of two indicted Providence city councilors – one was the majority leader, the other the council president – to cling to the trappings of their offices. The effort at secrecy in the process of developing land on the vacant acres of the I-195 innovation corridor raises similar concerns. Maybe it is unfair to link any of this to clambakes, but the thought of a way of life going down the tubes is difficult to resist. For good and ill, we still have clam shacks and political hacks.
This theme of evolution over time resonates with me because on August 28 my book Lost Providence will be published, also by Arcadia Publishing via History Press. It tracks evolution in the appearance of the city’s manmade features. There is some sad level of chicanery in that story, too, though it has nothing to do with clam shacks. I am trying to arrange a similar event at the Providence Public Library. Already arranged is a lecture hosted by the Pre- servation Society of Newport County on September 28, at Rosecliff.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island Clam Shacks, at $21.99, gives value for the money, although some of it will pull at your heart strings (and your purse strings), such as the reprinted menus from the shore dining halls and clam shacks of yore. By the way, Christopher Martin’s blog, quahog.org, is an excellent compendium of Rhode Island lore. David Stone has written several books of Rhode Island cuisine, including Clamcake Summer, Stuffie Summer and Chowder Summer.
As far as I can recall, Scalloptown was long gone when I was growing up in the East Greenwich area in the mid-1950’s and 60’s. It may have fallen victim to the 1938 Hurricane or it may have been legislated out of existence by the board of health. That area then became the town dump – and that’s how I knew it growing up. Now, it’s called ‘Scalloptown Park’, I think, and while I was still living in that part of the world, it became one of my favorite places to park and grow fat after visiting the Dunkin’ Donuts nearby. In that photo, Goddard Park (another nice place for donut eating) can be seen across the water.
Out here in the desert, there’s no easily accessible place to go and eat donuts. That’s something that Rhode Island has in spades over Arizona. I wish I knew that before I came here.
Thanks for the history, Subscriber. Very evocative. The photograph sang to me. And now you are in the Arizona donut desert? The horror! You have all my sympathy.
I remember working at the Rocky Point Shire Dining Hall as a 16 yr old waiter in the mid 1970’s. There was a man who was as old as the hills and who’s skin was brown and leathery as an old leather glove. His job was to oversee the giant outdoor clam steamer: 10 feet tall and very wide. He would sip clam juice from a spiggot in the side of the steamer all day long. When the waiters and waitresses would come outside for baskets of clams he would encourage us to have sips of the clam juice as an elixer. “I’ve been digging , selling and eating clams my whole life”, he would say. “RI is the center of the clam world! Eat them and drink their juice for a long life and to stay fertile!” We would laugh and oblige him. One day, I asked Mr Ferla, the owner, how old the “clam man” was. He laughed and said “very very old. He was in his eighties when I first started working here. He’s probably still alive…
Great story! Thanks very much, Dan! Was there ever an effort to use the clam juice as a drink for sale? Was it ever on any menus?
Here it was shellfish al fresco. Apponaug in native Narragansett means place where they roast oysters. Rocky Point patrons once could buy at the window overlooking bay and eat on the pier, or go up to the shore dinner hall if weather warranted indoors. In Maine, to this very day, they have countless similar lobster shacks. Red’s Eats in Wiscasset is famous. Others we’ve visited are Harraseeket Lunch in Freeport, Nunan’s Hut at Cape Porpoise near Kennebunkport, Ogunquit Lobster Pound, and Perkins Cove Lobster Shack also in Ogunquit, The one in Bar Harbor also features home made hand picked wild blueberry pie. Cape Neddick Lobster Pound is more a restaurant than a shack. But don’t travel all the way to Maine for lobster, when Cape Cod’s own Sesuit Harbor Cafe lures lobster connoisseurs from all over. Champlin’s and Iggy’s aren’t bad, either, Flo’s or Legal’s if you’ve got the cash.
Thanks for the info trove, Alan. We finally did eat out last night at Quito’s, in Bristol. Drove back through Colt State Park. Ahh! Did you know that lobster was once so low on the totem pole of cuisine in Rhode Island that in the 1840s it was fed to Thomas Dorr at the State Prison? I wanted to get that into my post but was unable. Now it is out.
Salivary glands in motion… 😉