Why the Seafood Boil Is the Perfect Pandemic Dinner

One pot, endless customization, the easiest dinner you'll make this week.

Crawfish Boil with Corn on the Cob and Potatoes
Photo: pamela_d_mcadams/Getty Images

As we transition from summer's freewheeling days to the cool, collected autumn, the world around us remains quite different. To paraphrase the well-known Gershwin song, the living this year has certainly not been easy.

That's true for everyone, but especially for home cooks. Many of us have been creating less from joy and more from responsibility. If the never-ending cycle of chop, cook, feed, rinse, and repeat has you ready to abandon the kitchen altogether, take a page from what coastal chefs do when items like crawfish and Maine lobster come into season: Head to the backyard and, in a large pot on the grill, boil your favorite seafood in beer or spicy broth, along with sausages, corn on the cob, and red-skinned potatoes.

The Original Clam Bake

In New England, this type of meal is called a clam bake (or clambake). Traditionally, this was prepared on the beach, in a wood fire pit layered with heated stones, seaweed, and canvas potato sacks soaked in seawater. The method is indigenous to the Wampanoag, who lived in the Cape Cod region and graciously taught it to the newcomers.

A New England clam bake typically included cold water lobster, quahogs, mussels, and steamers, which were supplemented by ears of corn and potatoes. Occasionally, carrots, onions, and the Portuguese sausage linguiça were added.

Today, most (but not all) clam bakes are really clam boils, produced in pots of water, sometimes with all the ingredients measured out and placed together in nets for easy removal and serving.

The clam bake, or boil, didn't stay stationary in New England, however. As soon as trains started bringing clams, nestled in ice, to other locales, John D. Rockefeller took it to Cleveland. There, it was adapted: A chicken was boiled along with the clams and corn. And the red-skinned potatoes were replaced by sweet potatoes.

A Southern Take on the Clam Bake

It's likely that seafood boils were also carried south by various travelers, where it assumed various regional identities. In the Mid-Atlantic, local blue crabs were steamed rather than boiled with a mixture of fermented acids, usually beer and vinegar. Chesapeake Bay crab seasoning was introduced, as were mallets on brown paper-covered tables to crack the crabs.

In the Low Country regions of Georgia and South Carolina, the boils were tailored to coastal shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes. Today, they occasionally feature ham, and crabs or crawfish depending on availability.

Although only alternatively named Frogmore Stew and Beaufort Stew after two South Carolina communities, the Frogmore appellation in particular stuck after Gourmet Magazine popularized the recipe for it in the 1980s.

In Louisiana Cajun country, the boils starred crawfish and became a well-known feature of the area. There, a boil developed to have specific rules ­–—but those guidelines depend on who you ask. Most of these boils are cooked over propane in 60- to 80-quart pots that are outfitted with an interior strainer. Some disdain the strainer, however, and opt for a scoop or a net.

Every "boil master" seems to have their own recipe for the zesty broth, comprised of garlic, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, mustard seed, coriander, allspice, lemon, hot sauce, and other flavorings. Condiments for the crawfish range from Italian dressing to ketchup to butter. Still, despite preferences, there's unspoken agreement that no pickers or crackers are allowed. In Louisiana, you eat a crawfish boil with your hands.

Seafood Boils: The Original One-Dish Dinner

How is this history pertinent to your pandemic pantry? Your backyard may not be a beach or bayou. Let's face it, you may have more of a balcony or fire escape than a picturesque piece of greenery. Regardless, the clam bake and the seafood boil are ideal ways for you to take a well-deserved break from the mundane.

These one-pot meals, similar in construction and materials yet easily customized to your personal preferences, are meant to at least evoke the breezy outdoors. Because they're inherently messy, they're also preferably consumed there, too, spilled out on newspaper, or plastic-covered tables. Diners help themselves to whatever catches their fancy — a few clams here, an ear of corn and a link of sausage there, a lobster tail or claw.

Additionally, they incorporate some of the items that most represent late summer with very little work involved, aside from maybe cutting some potatoes in half and snapping corn into thirds. Feel free to add in regional or cultural ingredients: whole artichokes, mushrooms, fennel, turnips, or parsnips. Play around with different kinds of sausages — try kielbasa or chorizo. Or replace it altogether, if you're vegan, with a non-meat alternative.

Granted, scrubbing beards off mussels or dropping live lobster and crawfish into boiling liquid might be intimidating for the uninitiated. That's why we tend to enjoy a variety of mollusks and crustaceans in restaurants rather than our own homes. Still, for the unsqueamish, it's a simple task.

And the rest of the cooking chores can be shared, as bakes and boils are conventionally prepared communally as well as consumed collectively. Get the whole family involved. Because there's no real knife work, it's safe to ask even young children to participate with shucking corn and washing potatoes.

Once you prepare a clam bake or seafood boil for the first time, you quickly realize that most of the preparation is about a) flavoring and b) timing. Consult recipes like this Seafood Boil or this New England-style Clam Bake. If you're really ambitious, you can make your own Old Bay seasoning substitute for a Delaware Blue Crab Boil or Creole crab boil seasoning for a Louisiana Crawfish Boil. For product, source from your local farm stands and fishmongers or restaurateurs who have converted their properties into pantries.

Even if you wind up putting it all together on the kitchen stove anyway during some muggy evening, this kind of feast should bring a semblance of outdoor fun inside. And no doubt you'll have leftovers to make seafood salad for the following night's cool, refreshing supper.

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