EAST HAMPTON—In a 300-year-old fishing cottage adorned with eel spears and clam rakes, Al Lester mixes clams, sliced onions, and chunks of peeled potatoes in a stainless steel pot, and insists, “It’s no big secret.”
He’s talking about his legendary clam pie—among family and friends, its mere mention makes mouths water—and he’s not telling the whole truth. First, there’s the secret marinade in which he soaks the clams overnight. And then there’s the secret spot in Three Mile Harbor, which he says yields the sweetest and most tender mollusks around. Otherwise the recipe is amazingly simple.
“I learned this by watching my grandmother,” Mr. Lester says, grinning through his streaming red beard. “She would make cinnamon buns from the extra pie dough.” He adds a bit of rosemary and sage from his greenhouse (“In the summer, I grow lots of herbs and I think they make the pie even better”), some Italian seasoning and pepper, but no salt (“The broth holds enough”), and ladles the mix into a pie crust. He tops it with a few slices of butter and pinches the pie cover around the perimeter, leaving a large hole in the center for extracting a potato. “If the potato’s done,” he says, “the pie’s done.” He laces the top with cream (“It’s supposed to make it brown more”), and slides the pie into the oven warmed to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
The ingredients may be humble, but the clam pie holds a special significance in the East End’s cooking canon. Old-timers speak fondly of the pie, and recipes read like family histories. The addition of tomatoes points back to a grandfather’s prolific tomato patch; Polish ancestry might explain the addition of sausage.
Generations of clam-digging families, like the Lesters, looking for a creative way to use abundant shellfish, have prepared these hearty, one-dish meals. Of all the dishes associated with the East End, including sweet corn, Peconic Bay scallops, and Long Island duck, the sometimes joke-inspiring clam pie might qualify best as a recipe that tells a story about the area’s culinary heritage.
THE FIRST CLAM PIE
The first Long Island clam undoubtedly had an Old World predecessor. “English medieval cooking adored pies,” notes Colin Spencer, the British food historian and author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. “Everything got into pies, so certainly clams and oysters were made into pies.” (“Clam” is a Scottish word, whose origin dates back to 1500.)
The first settlers of eastern Long Island would have come with their family recipes from British, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish cuisine, and once they had pie in their “culinary toolbox,” they could slip in local ingredients, including clam, but also the New World potato.
Simple enough. But here’s where things get murky.
Sandra Oliver, a New England food historian and author of Saltwater Foodways, can point to dozens of seafood pie variations from 18th century New England cookbooks, including recipes for oyster, lobster, or cod pie. But versions with clam seem to be limited to Long Island. “Around northern New England,” Ms. Oliver notes, “there was a bit of embarrassment associated with eating clams,” considered worthy only for Indians, for baiting cod hooks, or for people who couldn’t afford anything else.
For a variety of climatic, cultural, and economic reasons, the opprobrium didn’t take hold in eastern Long Island, where clam has long been an important food source, and where it yielded an astonishing range of dishes. In some cases, clam pie was probably a dish of thrift. The poorest able-bodied man could rake and shuck clams, one of the most abundant foods. Like bluefish and pancakes, clam pie allowed a housewife to feed a family with little more than flour, lard, and readily available seafood. And, compared to a dish of last resort like “smooched” clams—a combination of salt pork, clams, and onions made in the late winter when the larder was running low—clam pie was utterly regal.
“It sounds like a micro-regional dish,” Ms. Oliver theorizes, like Plymouth Rock succotash or Rhode Island Johnny cakes, dishes that crop up with more verve and diversity in certain places based not just on local preferences and available ingredients, but also self-perpetuating tradition.
The center of clam pie diversity seems to be the Bonacker culture of East Hampton, composed of those pioneer families of British heritage like the Lesters. Although Bonackers undoubtedly made clam pies earlier, the first recorded recipe comes from the 1896 edition of the Lady’s Village Improvement Society (LVIS) of East Hampton cook-book, which includes a recipe for “Oyster or Clam Pie” by a Mrs. Ann Parsons that calls for:
“One cup oysters, one beaten egg, one scant cup milk, a little broth; season with butter, pepper and salt; bake like any pie with two rich crusts for an hour; drawn butter should be used for a sauce; if clams are used, chop them fine.”
Clam pie recipes appear in every edition of the LVIS cookbooks; some editions include as many as four different entries. (Clam pie is notably absent from Southampton, Bridgehampton, and Sag Harbor cookbooks. One Shelter Island chef who doesn’t make clam pie admitted, “That’s a good Bubbie dish,” using an endearing term for Bonackers.) But, even in the early years, the Bonac clam pie built a reputation that stretched well beyond the Shinnecock Canal. In 1948, Mrs. N.H. Dayton was invited to New York to show the New York Herald Tribune how she made “My Grandmother Stratton’s Hard Shelled Clam Pie.” In July of 1951, a recipe for East Hampton clam pie was published in the Ladies’ Home Journal under the caption: “Best I Ever Ate.” And, in a particularly infamous case, “a New York dowager, summer resident in East Hampton since childhood, was once presented with a clam pie at her New York home. The cook was told to warm the pie in the oven. Later she reported, ‘I never had a chance to get it warmed through. Her teeth wuz waterin’!’”
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
Back at the Lester house, two hours and many fishing stories later, the pie reveals itself, having bubbled over (as Mr. Lester anticipated) and having filled the house with the sweet scent of the bay. (The smell has attracted at least one neighbor.) The pie is so frail that the filling spills onto the plates, leaving the forsaken crust on the edge. Silence ensues. The potatoes and onions taste as if they have been sautéed in clam juice. The clams are steamed to perfection: intact, subtle, and not rubbery. The crust imparts a bready sweetness to the whole concoction.
Like barbeque in the South, every Long Island family that makes clam pie seems to have its own particular—and sometimes secret— blend of ingredients. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common permutations based on a survey of local cookbooks, chefs, and amateur cooks:
Use only hardshell clams (quahog), or a mix of hard and softshell clams (steamers), or just the hard or soft part of a hardshell clam. Chop, grind or leave the clam whole. Combine the clams with potatoes, onions, carrots, red or green tomatoes, celery, parsley, mustard seed, oysters, bacon, eggs, heavy cream, milk, or any combination of the above ingredients and other matter, both vegetable and animal.
Cook the filling and then bake it in either a single or double pie crust, or bake raw ingredients. Serve with butter, Worcestershire sauce, cream, Parmesan cheese, or ketchup.
The Sagaponack writer Peter Matthiessen, who, by his own account, has eaten many clam pies, says “there is even a dish, if you believe it, called rhubarb and clam pie.” It was “a poor man’s dish,” said Mr. Matthiessen, who learned about this variation from an Amagansett fisherman. Poorer fishers and farmers always had the prolific perennial in their gardens to compliment the abundant shellfish.
Most area clam pies come out of home ovens, but a handful of local bakeries and seafood shops still make them. Nancy Thompson of Breadzilla in Wainscott bakes clam pies seasonally, using clams and assorted spices for the filling and topping the pie with bread-crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. She picked up the recipe from her mother who would make the pies—“when dad went out and dug too many clams”—during summer vacations in Five Islands, Maine. Ms. Thompson, a former marine biologist, prefers to make them during the winter “when shellfish are at their best.” She says, “In spring and summer, clams spawn so their flesh is not as appealing.”
Most residents do in fact remember the dish as a winter delicacy, and some people still give clam pie as a Christmas gift. William A. Tuthill, a third-generation Southampton native who summers in his family’s Sag Harbor home, remembers his mother’s clam pie as a summer treat. The recipe called for “lots of tomatoes,” both red and green, which made the filling less firm and more watery, “like a meat pie with the gravies inside.” (According to one caterer, during the past summer, at least three exclusive East Hampton shindigs featured small slices of clam pie as an hors-d’ouevre, or as a centerpiece with salad.)
As with any food tradition, clam pie depends as much on how the ingredients are combined, as on the ingredients themselves. Nancy Stone, who owns the Golden Eagle in East Hampton and is part of an old East Hampton family, says the key to a good clam pie is an iron meat grinder. “Run onions, potatoes, and clams through it and that’s the filling,” she says.
Like heirloom garden seed or folklore, clam pies survive and evolve only by being passed from one generation to the next, prepared and enjoyed. The chain of inheritance can be threatened when families move away, die out, or stop cooking. “It’s not something you can go to Costco and buy,” says Charlotte Sasso, owner of Stuart’s Seafood in Amagansett, who adapted her recipe from a longtime recipe used by the Vorpahl’s, her shop’s previous owners. “It’s still made by hand with local ingredients,” she says. “It’s a tradition, and there’s much to be said for tradition in this modern throwaway era.”
Still, the humble clam pie may be destined for bigger things. Last year, Mrs. Sasso appeared on a segment of “Food Finds,” a Food Network program that focuses on regional specialties which viewers can order by mail. The show aired this past spring, and Mrs. Sasso didn’t have to think long before deciding what distinctive Hamptons dish to prepare. “Clam pie travels well,” she said.
This story was originally published in 2005.