One recent summer afternoon, I went for a sail with several friends along Penobscot Bay in Downeast, Maine. Under calm winds, we quietly drifted past rocky ledges, tranquil beaches, and spruce-clad islands. I marveled that my Wabanaki ancestors, who lived in relationship with Maine’s land and waterways for millennia, would have taken in this view almost daily as they hunted and fished offshore.
A friend pointed to a shell midden along a nearby cove, an ancient deposit of clam shells and other organic materials left behind by my ancestors. While most non-indigenous folks today view middens like this as merely heaps of waste, they actually hold great meaning to the Wabanaki for being laced with pottery pieces, stone tools, and human remains. Strikingly, this is just one of over 2,000 other middens lining Maine’s many waterways, each one a tangible link connecting displaced Wabanaki people to our ancestors—and to the origins of an iconic Maine meal.
The “Maine Lobster Bake” is a beacon of summer in the Pine Tree State, a fiery, sandy, day-long endeavor resulting in a large-format meal that showcases the best of the region’s seafood and produce. While nowadays it’s associated with weddings, family reunions, and fundraisers, the many shell middens lining Maine’s coastal waterways tell a different story. The clam and lobster bakes of New England are inspired by an ancient indigenous custom, one that long tied the Wabanaki people to our land and celebrated coastal living. To better understand the indigenous origins of this living tradition and partake in the ongoing movement to reclaim heritage foodways, I organized a bake with fellow members of the Penobscot Nation on our ancestral land. Before bringing this ancestral custom burning, steaming, and hissing to life, however, we needed to look to its origins.
Dr. Darren Ranco is the Chair of Native American Programs and Coordinator of Native American Research at the University of Maine. He said that many North American food traditions are dependent on the stewardship of indigenous people. “I think there is a popular conception that [clam bakes] are a European adoption of indigenous traditions, a tradition that, for coastal indigenous people, would have been part of a larger communal meal based on shellfish collecting, and cooking in a pit on the beach.” Archaeological examination of sites along the coast demonstrates that shellfish would have supplemented a broader array of coastal fare including seal, porpoise, and fish, as well as mainland game such as moose and deer.
Chris Sockalexis, an archaeologist who serves as the Penobscot Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, pointed to shell mounds as evidence of these ancient feasts as well. “[They] show that our ancestors ate a variety of shellfish quite often, [including] clams, oysters, mussels, scallops and sea urchins,” said Sockalexis. As for why lobster shells don’t appear in today’s mounds, Sockalexis said their shells break down faster than clams, which are composed of more durable lime. He adds that lobster shells would have been used as fertilizer in traditional agriculture, nourishing crops such as corn, beans, and squash.
As to the nuts and bolts of the bake itself, a fair amount of knowledge has survived to the present day, though no one I’d spoken to in my Penobscot community had attended an indigenous-held traditional lobster or clam bake in recent memory. My cousin Ryan Kelley spent summers working on Isleboro, an island in Penobscot Bay, where he assisted in traditional lobster and clambakes for seasonal residents. He enthusiastically agreed to help recreate this custom.
Ryan reached out to Wampanoag experts to ensure that the bake would align with nearby coastal indigenous techniques. Unlike the Penobscots, the Wampanoag were not completely displaced from the coast, and more successfully carried the tradition into the present day. While Europeans have adopted this technique of cooking shellfish, elders in the Wampanoag community insist they omitted several important details.
With detailed instructions acquired, we secured permission to hold the bake at a Blue Hill Heritage Trust preserve in Brooksville, Maine, bordering a rocky tidal beach. On a scorching August afternoon, wisps of sea breeze provided welcome relief as Ryan and several other Penobscot Nation citizens amassed a pile of about 40 melon-sized rocks. They spread them into an even layer, onto which they built a fire. The scent of woodsmoke, unchanged throughout the millennia, connected us to our ancestral foodways, and over the next several hours we rejoiced in sharing family stories and laughter, watching the firewood slowly reduced to coals.
At this point, Ryan smoothed the coals with a rake, and we set off to gather Rockweed, a common Maine seaweed bejeweled with pockets of seawater. As we spread a layer atop the scorching rocks, the salty pockets popped and hissed, sending sudden bursts of steam into the air. Next, we placed lobsters, clams, crabs, corn (which remained in its husk), and potatoes atop the seaweed. Another layer of seaweed followed, then approximately 15–20 gallons of seawater was poured atop the mound. Sea-soaked burlap was stretched across the top before a large, equally water-logged blanket was laid out to cover the entire mound. About 10 more rocks were finally positioned around the edges of the blanket to create a seal.
For the next hour and a half, we watched as boats passed by and a distant thunderstorm worked its way across the bay, shielding us from the late-summer sun. We noted that communal meals would have been a common summer theme for our ancestors who lived here prior to colonization, and that this might be the first time in centuries that Wabanaki people had come together in this space to recreate this meal.
Once the eagerly anticipated timer signaled the feast was ready, we piled our plates with perfectly steamed shellfish and all of the accouterments. Everyone remarked that the flavor and texture were completely different from the simply boiled lobster for which Maine is famous. The meat was more tender, and varied in flavor from one lobster to the next. We chalked it up to its placement on the pile and wind direction, though the truth may remain with our ancestors. Beside sated stomachs and sun-kissed cheeks, my fellow Wabanaki left with the glow of having lived out an inherited legacy, something that—against all odds—could not be taken away.
“We’re not [exactly] sure what we’re doing,” said Kelley, “but me, you, and dozens of other Natives are getting reacquainted with traditions that [have a] familiar, homey feeling.” Indeed, across the country, a revival of indigenous restaurants and ingredients is taking place. My father Mark echoed the sentiment. “[This was] a rekindling of ancestral eating, a connection to… the land, the water, and the creatures that the creator has provided us,” he said.
While we can’t undo the deleterious effects of colonization, the enduring call of the land and the ocean our ancestors called home invites us to revitalize these traditions in a new light. This gathering represented far more than just a reestablishment of a culinary tradition—in returning to an ancestrally significant location, we are coming home.