WORLD FOOD – The Pleasures and Past of the Bonac Clam Pie

01 Jun 2004

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,” 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. Here—a two-hour drive east from New York City, along the “Long Island” that stretches 200 kilometers into the Atlantic Ocean, where America’s first farming and fishing settlements are yielding to the beachfront mansions of the international resort area known as “The Hamptons”—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 Lester’s, 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 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,” 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,” 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 of East Hampton cookbook, 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.”) 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’!’”

Brian Halweil is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and also a freelance food and farming writer living on the East End of Long Island

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