Party on the Half Shell

Nothing says summer in New England like a traditional clambake. On the beach or in your backyard, it’s a thoroughly fun and laid-back affair.

Nothing says summer in New England like a traditional clambake. On the beach or in your backyard, it’s a thoroughly fun and laid-back affair. Encourage friends to arrive in flip-flops, make the decor bright and beachy and have plenty of ice-cold beer and crisp white wine chilling in big buckets or lobster pots.

Think colorful and playful. Seating should be casual—beach chairs are fine, or you could set up a picnic table or two to lend a casual feel. When setting the table, leave the fine china in the cabinet. Plastic Frisbees make for unexpectedly fun plates.

For the utensils and napkins, tie bundles of plastic flatware and napkins together with brightly colored raffia. Then place those bundles, along with lobster crackers, picks, wet wipes and lobster bibs, in small plastic beach pails, suggests Linda DeFranco Barck, owner of Tables of Content Catering in Boston. “When it comes time to crack the lobsters and eat the steamers, guests can use the pails for the shells,” she adds. She likes draping colorful beach towels over your table or tables, like a runner—or use that quintessential clambake favorite, the red-and-white vinyl tablecloth.

Serve drinks in blue and green glasses. “There is something about the way the light glistens through the glass that says ‘I’m at the ocean,’” Barck says. Have lemons and limes on hand to garnish the glasses, but skip the paper umbrellas. “They are tropical,” Barck says, “and clambakes are New England.”

Set the mood by creating casual centerpieces from glass vases or silver buckets filled with sand, votives or tapers, and seashells. Use large scallop shells as votive holders. “Lanterns or lights strung from the top or sides of a tent always create ambiance,” says Janie Haas, owner of Janie Haas Event Consulting in North Andover. “If there is no tent, it’s easy to create that ambiance by using tall bamboo poles that have been wrapped with tiny lights. Tiki lamps are also a wonderful touch.”

If you’re planning no-table seating, arrange vinyl cushions or bamboo mats on the sand or the lawn. “Or use fun garden chairs to give it a picnic feeling,” Haas says.

For an inexpensive hit of extra color, blow up a bunch of beach balls and toss them around the party area.

Plan your outdoor party and your creative menu around a simple set of simple clambake elements. “Clams are a must, of course,” says Debra Ponzek, owner of the -Connecticut-based catering company Aux Délices and author of The Summer House Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2003) and The Family Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2006). “Then add lobsters, corn, potatoes and some spicy sausage.”

Foods to accompany the clambake should be simple and refreshing. “The shellfish is the star,” she says, “and you can round this meal out beautifully with crisp greens, a spicy vegetable slaw and great tomato salad.”

If you want to do an on-the-beach clambake, says Ponzek, you start by digging a hole in the sand, filling it with large stones and lots of charcoal, and getting a hot fire going with the charcoal for at least an hour, preferably two.

You can get the food ready while the fire’s burning. Prepare individual -bundles of food—clams, lobsters, potatoes, corn and sausage—wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with twine.

“When the coals are really hot,” Ponzek says, “rake the coals off the stones, then cover the stones with a thick layer of seaweed.” Lay your food packets on top of the seaweed, then cover them with more seaweed.

To speed up the process slightly, cover everything with a large tarp. “The idea is to steam the food,” Ponzek says, “and get great flavor from the seaweed.” Let everything cook over the hot stones for one and a half to two hours.