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.