History of Bill Smith's:
Of the many legacies left to our pilgrim fathers by the Northeastern Indians, none has been more enduring or festive, with the exception of the Thanksgiving feast,
than the clambake. The Indians cooked newly dug quahog clams and potatoes, freshly harvested corn and recently caught
fish and lobster on a platform of red hot stones covered with seaweed, to
make a seaside feast. The shore-dwelling natives were avid practitioners of this art, as seen by the numerous heaps of clam shells or middens
they left along the coastline.
European settlers quickly followed suit. Towns, villages, and civic organizations held fairs centered around a huge clambake. A Fourth of July celebration was considered incomplete without a clambake for many seaside communities. Nor was it limited to public holidays; as a weekend activity, it was perfect for families. Children gathered rocks, driftwood and seaweed while their parents prepared the food. The feast followed a day of swimming and games on the beach. Clambakes quickly became a cherished New England tradition.
Now, however, the clambake is something akin to an endangered species. Local ordinances against building fires, private and overcrowded beaches, and limited time have contributed to the falling off of this summer celebration. Perhaps another reason is that people no longer know how to make a clambake.
Fortunately for Martha’s Vineyard, a specialized Clambake Catering company is keeping the art alive and flourishing! Bill Smith’s Martha’s Vineyard Clambake Co. specializes in putting on a magnificent clambake.
Bill Smith learned the trade years ago by helping his father islands and took over the concession at the Chappaquiddick Beach Club. One day a club member approached him with a request for a clambake. He agreed somewhat reluctantly.
The original clambakes were all "pit style" where a pit was dug in the sand of a beach, lined with rock and then filled with wood and fired. Later the hot coals from the wood fire would be removed, seaweed laid over the very hot rock to provide steam and the clambake foods placed in the pit and covered with a tarpaulin to hold in the steam. After an hour of cooking, the tarp was removed and the meal, consisting of lobster, clams, mussels and various vegetables such as potatoes and corn would be eaten. If all went well, you had a delicious meal, but often conditions were not perfect and you ended up with either undercooked or overcooked food. What made Bill so popular was his ability to judge conditions and consistently put out a good meal for everyone.
He started out clambaking just for friends and neighbors, but soon developed a reputation and started receiving requests from other residents and summer visitors to do clambake parties for them. Thus began what would develop into a unique catering business.
The rest, as they say, is history. At the time of Bill’s death at the end of 2003, his company was regarded by all knowledgeable connoisseurs of the clambake as the best of the best.
The Growing Demand:
From year to year, the demand for Bill's famous clambakes increased. He started hiring young college students who came to the Vineyard for the summer and teaching
them the art of the clambake. Bill looked around for a way to provide consistently good quality clambake meals for all of his customers, especially when he had more than one party going
at the same time and couldn't be in two places at once.
The need for consistent quality, together with tougher health and environmental rules promulgated in the 1980s and 90s eventually lead to the complete abandonment of the 'pit style' clambake in favor of the 'contained fire' propane burners. State regulations forbid open burning on or in the sands of any public beach on the Vineyard -- or anywhere in Massachusetts. The use of propane fires allowed us to control cooking time and temperature and thereby put out consistently good clambake meals.
Clambakes in the 21st Century:
The search for just the right equipment and cooking method took years. One of our early cookers looked like a flying saucer sitting on the beach or in someone's
back yard. It was heavy and unwieldy, but did a great job of steaming the lobsters and shellfish. Unfortunately, the equipment was so heavy that we were unable to employ most of
the young women who applied to work on our staff because they simply could not handle these large, heavy and and awkward cookers.
Eventually, we discovered that large aluminum cooking kettles worked just as well as -- perhaps even better than -- the awkward 'flying saucers' and had the added benefit of letting us cook the vegetables in with the seafood, imparting a gentle hint of seafood to the other ingredients.