Hot Off the Rocks

Quintessential clambake catering experiences bring an Ocean State tradition to private events

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If an authentic clambake is on the itinerary of your late-summer soiree or Labor Day get-together, chances are good a few members of the catering team are out on the water while you and your guests are getting ready in the morning. 

“A traditional old-fashioned clambake process begins early in the day when we send our crews out to pick fresh rockweed, a dark green seaweed that contains bubbles filled with saltwater,” says event and office manager Melissa McGrath of McGrath Clambakes & Catering, based in Newport. She describes the care that goes into building the bonfire with alternating layers of wood and rock, tending the fire to achieve a bed of very hot coals and rocks, and covering the base with mounds of rockweed – all unfolding at your venue while festivities take place. 

“The bubbles in the rockweed burst when heated, emitting seawater that steams and seasons the food,” McGrath continues. “At this point, the bakemaster works very quickly to capture as much heat as possible under the canvas.” Racks of food – artfully layered to ensure ideal cooking times and balanced flavoring – are expertly nestled inside and covered with layers of canvas.

The whole process is part of a New England tradition dating back centuries. “A hot rock clambake is a unique experience,” says Lin Patty, event coordinator of Yawgoo Bakes and Barbecues, an Exeter company that travels. “Many cultures have some kind of specialized cooking process involving hot rocks. The New England version comes from Native American tribes as far back as 2,000 years.” 

For many businesses, it’s a family tradition, too. Now in the hands of third-generation bakemaster T.R. McGrath, McGrath Clambakes has been in business for 53 years, continuing on the tradition of bakes and lobster boils while also expanding to include other catering offerings. Yawgoo Bakes, founded by Pat Murray in 1961, remains a family-operated business to this day with her grandson Andy Patty now a bakemaster.

“A clambake wedding creates a local and casual feel that’s very memorable for guests attending, especially if they have never experienced a clambake,” says McGrath, explaining that their event packages are fully customizable. “A lobster baked in a clambake has a very distinct flavor and texture. The slow cooking process is similar to slow cooking a pot roast where the meat falls apart and is very tender and has a bit of a smoky flavor.”

Different bakemasters have different indicators of when the bake is done. Yawgoo Bakes judges by checking a test potato – and once it’s ready, guests can dig into steamers and mussels served with melted butter. Their staff split and cut lobster claws for easier access.

Tradition often dictates the ringing of a bell to open the bake, which McGrath Clambakes upholds. The bell tolls. Guests gather for the unveiling. “The layers of canvas are peeled away,” says McGrath. “Billows of steam rise from the bake, along with a surge of delicious aromas.” Followed by “oohs” and “ahhs,” the feast begins.

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