How to stay married

Have a Chris Murphy clambake at your wedding. And some useful information about how to have your own clambake.

Chris Murphy was digging clams in Chilmark Pond when a bride-to-be whose family lived on the pond asked if he could put on a traditional clambake for her upcoming wedding.
An Island fisherman by trade, 
Murphy had attended clambakes, but never done one. So he sought out some old-timers for advice. “Each one told me something so completely different, it was hard to believe they were all talking about clambakes.” It was a preview of what Murphy would later come to know as true: no two clambakes are exactly alike, though the basic technique follows a Vineyard tradition dating back thousands of years.
Keeping in mind what he heard, Murphy and his friend Don Ives engaged the wedding party in preparations. They collected their own ingredients from around the Island: rocks, wood, steamers, mussels, oysters, crabs, and of course, seaweed. Murphy cooked it all in their yard overlooking the water using just fire, stones, seaweed, and a canvas. “It was 
terrifying,” he recalls. But it worked, and he remains friends with the couple 
today, more than twenty-seven years later. It also launched what would be the first of many Chris Murphy clambakes over the next quarter-century.
Murphy saw the old-style clambake as another way to sell what he was catching commercially, and he was hired to run them many Saturdays in the summer until two years ago when 
he turned the business over to his daughter. Though today we associate clambakes with lobsters and steamers, Murphy offered any number of food combinations over the years: blue crabs, oysters, mussels, all kinds of fresh fish, as well as clams and lobsters. Sometimes it was a feast of all those staples, along with chicken, sausage, potatoes or sweet potatoes, and unhusked corn soaked in seawater.
“I’ve seen it done a thousand ways,” says Murphy, now fifty-seven. “There isn’t any right answer. Each has its own flavor that everything contributes to. As you 
put the food in, every clam, mussel, 
lobster has liquid, and that liquid drips down over the hot rocks and creates the steam.”
The size of the pit depends on the size of the event. For a clambake of fifty, for instance, you might dig a pit six feet in diameter and four feet deep, lined with rocks. Along with the truckload of rocks to haul in, there’s a truckload of wood, all the food, and rockweed. Then a fire is built – a “hell of a fire” in Murphy’s words – that burns for several hours. The rocks get so hot, they dissolve if picked up and dropped. For this reason, they can be used just once.
The fire is scraped away and ashes raked from the pit. A layer of seaweed covers the rocks, about  four  inches, depending on the conditions. The food comes next, placed on top of the seaweed. A second layer of seaweed goes down, then a wet canvas is secured over the top.
Temperatures reach between four hundred and six hundred degrees. “Most of the cooking is done in fifteen minutes, but in order to cook it right and get the flavor you want, you have to leave it a lot longer.” Murphy let it cook a couple of hours, and he experimented over the years, layering food with seaweed in 
various combinations. “I’d change the 
order frequently. After a couple of years I realized I was back to where I started from. This is not an exact science.”
Conditions such as the direction of the wind, or even whether you’ve dug into sand or clay, come into play. There are lots of judgment calls, which is why clambakes need someone in charge, someone with experience behind them. Historically, that person was called a bakemaster. When clambakes on the 
Island and in other New England coastal communities became popular as a business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many resorts and 
hotels employed bakemasters to arrange weekend clambakes for all their guests, sometimes hundreds of people.
Murphy, son of the late painter Stan Murphy, remembers as a child community clambakes following sailboat races and other events when everyone pitched in and helped. He recalls as a teenager  Blueberry Hill Inn owner Lewis King 
organizing them for guests at his Chilmark inn. Murphy truly understood the historical aspect when a clambake pit was unearthed in an eroding cliff at Squibnocket some years back. The pit was estimated by an archeologist to be about five thousand years old. But as the Island has evolved from a fishing and farming community, so too has the clambake. “It’s too much work,” explains Murphy. “If you have a community of people involved in fishing, putting 
together a clambake is easy.” Today, with people working in offices, putting together a clambake is harder.
When Murphy retired from the clambake business, he was glad to leave behind all the emerging town rules and regulations, which now include having to schedule beach time. He’ll leave that to his twenty-five-year-old daughter, Mary, who, with her sister Hope, worked side by side with Murphy over the years. Now she’ll deal with the bureaucracy, the 
effort to transport essentials to the beach, and the whole process that somehow magically results in a glorious feast of Vineyard fare. Murphy can chip in once in a while and recall with fondness some of the good times.
“As far as I can figure,” adds 
Murphy, “everyone that got married and had a clambake is still married.”

How to keep your family happy

Bill Bennett makes magic (and really great steamed lobsters). Plus, some helpful tips on how to do a pit-less bake.

It’s a process that I learned from my dad. When I was a kid it was always 
a feast,” says Bill Bennett, about what 
drew him initially to clambakes. “I was always amazed that it worked and that’s the way they had done it for centuries. The Indians did it with hides, we use tarps.” Today Bennett, a forty-year-old Chilmark resident and owner of Bennett Electric in West Tisbury, carries on an Island and family tradition, a labor of love he works to make a memorable celebration and feast where no one goes home hungry.
As with any good party, preparations begin long before the event. “We collect a lot of seaweed – two to five trash-cans – cordwood, and a lot of rocks.” Bennett lays and lights a fire on the beach, 
usually in the morning, three to four hours before festivities begin. As the fire burns, he puts “bowling ball–sized” rocks or beach stones in the fire. He throws on more wood, then more rocks, and so on.
When the rocks are hot enough, he rakes them away from the fire with a hoe. No two clambakes are the same, and Bennett typically does not dig a pit. The rocks sit on the sand. The size of the bed depends on the size of the bake. One of Bennett’s largest was a family reunion at Harthaven Beach three years ago that brought together about a hundred and fifty people. If you have only five to ten lobsters, use about ten rocks or beach stones, but it’s better to err on the side of too many, he says. “The bottom line is you need to have a good bed of hot rocks.”
With the rocks set, Bennett says what happens next transpires quickly. Everything must be ready – the wet seaweed, tarps, the live lobsters, shucked summer corn, the butter for dipping. People stand by, each with a task. “It’s an orchestrated thing,” Bennett explains. “We have this talk beforehand, what it’s going to look like. I try to make it where everyone sort of helps – the more hands, the more fun.” Then Bennett gives the signal, “Okay, guys, we’re ready to go.” Half the seaweed is swiftly spread over the rocks, about eight to ten inches. Then come the lobsters, corn, and steamers, laid on the seaweed surface. “Then I put the rest of the seaweed on top, four to six inches. At that point the crucial thing – and this is where I screwed up in one of my clambakes – is to pour a few gallons of seawater over the top seaweed layer, not enough to cool the rocks but enough to generate additional steam.” Wet tarps, made from old sailcloth or new painters’ tarps, cover the entire bed, edges weighed down with sand or rocks. “The thing is doming up, it’s so pressured. I wait ten minutes, then pull the tarp off, and voilà, everything is done. People just eat and it’s great.”

Bennett always buys extra lobsters to make sure there’s enough for several rounds. “People can’t go away hungry from something like this,” he says. 
Family and guests feast and swim, and the kids – including his nine-year-old daughter Bella – toast marshmallows in the remnants of the nearby fire. “People love it,” he says. “It appeals to most 
people, no matter who they are.”
Bennett says that although the whole process is more common sense than rocket science, it does seem to take some practice. “Once I forgot to put 
water on. It was a disaster. There were thirty people and it just didn’t work. I wasn’t experienced enough.” Another time, he forgot to call the Oak Bluffs 
fire chief for the fire permit. He and friends arrived on the beach at 6 a.m., unloaded, got the fire going, and then went to call the fire department. Bennett was told the fire chief was on his way to a truck fire. A few minutes later, Bennett met a displeased chief arriving at the beach. “I should have called a week ahead,” he says.
Bennett says the old-style clambake, with all the hauling and hard work involved, is a dying art on the 
Island.  “It’s worth the trouble for sure,” he says. “You have to trust it’s going to work. Even if you hire a company and you’re paying for it, it’s still magic.”
Bennett himself will carry on, with thoughts of his father who died last 
year not far from his mind. “I want to carry on the tradition with my 
daughter. We’ll do our best to keep it 

Light my fire: what you should know If you are planning a traditional clambake on 
a private beach or locale, you will first need 
a fire permit from the fire chief in the town where the event is planned. To hold a clambake on a public beach, you need to contact the 
town offices for a copy of rules and regulations governing beach use, as well as get permission from the fire chief.