Food & Drink

How Did the Cleveland Clambake Even Become a Thing?

Autumn in Cleveland is marked by three things: the Browns losing and Buckeyes winning, crisp weather, and the return of clambakes. Despite the fact that the city rests at the foot of the shores of a notoriously polluted freshwater body of water, the seafood-centric feast is a fall staple.

Of course, a Cleveland clambake is unique and distinct in both process and composition from those held elsewhere. Instead of being prepared the New England way -- on a beach or near water, using a tedious process involving fire pits, rocks, and seaweed -- all of the components are thrown into one pot and steamed together. And Cleveland's variation is characteristically hearty: a dozen clams, half a chicken, an ear of corn, a sweet potato, rolls and butter, and coleslaw.

"That's been the staple of clambakes forever," says John C. Young, president of Euclid Fish Company.

Underwood Archives/Archives Photos/Getty Images

Commercializing the clambake

He would know: his grandfather, chef John J. Comella, helped kickstart the clambake as we now know it in Cleveland by formalizing the menu and making the bakes more accessible and portable through the family catering business.

"We feel that my grandfather really said, 'OK, here's the clams, half-chicken, ear of corn, sweet potato, rolls and butter, coleslaw. Let's put it all together,'" Young says. "He loved to cook, loved to talk about food, loved to talk about making people happy through cooking food. He did a lot with churches, a lot to educate."

By all accounts, Comella developed this passion early. He spent his childhood in San Francisco shadowing his own father, a fisherman and produce dealer. The family eventually moved to Cleveland; sadly, Comella's father passed away when he was 12. The young man shouldered the responsibility to support his family during the Depression -- first by selling waffles from a wagon, and then by peddling clams and oysters. Interestingly, his "first love" was actually baseball, Young notes: "[He] actually was going to play for the Indians, but couldn't pull it off because his family was totally dependent on him."

For the chef, clambakes were a family affair.

In 1944, Comella opened a market at E. 185th St in Euclid, OH, under the name Chef Comella’s Fish and Clambake Company. (This eventually evolved into the Euclid Fish Company.) For the chef, clambakes were a family affair. In fact, Young says his uncle (who's also named John) remembers being at Comella's house on Hiller Ave in 1944, "going up and down the steps, husking corn and washing clams" from the basement.

"When I was a kid, it was a real small house, but everything in the planet took place in that basement," Young says. "Like a lot of Italian families, everything revolves around the basement, cooking, and with food." Things started progressing outside of the house after World War II ended: Comella traveled to Toledo and bought some army surplus aluminum pots, which expedited the growth of the catering business.

At this point, however, the clambake phenomenon wasn't new to Cleveland. In fact, geography, population, and even our mild autumn weather made the region a natural place to have them. "If you think about fall and the tradition of a clambake, it comes into play with how the product got here in the first place," Young says.

A feast for the Rockefellers

Back in the day, seafood traveled by trains, originating in New York City and moving west through Great Lakes cities -- Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, and eventually Chicago -- where it would be re-iced. During certain eras, when shellfish such as clams and oysters arrived in Cleveland, they would often be directed to Lake County, where many of the city's elite families had summer homes and would throw parties on Little Mountain.

"Guys would bring out clams and oysters to Rockefellers and all the big-name people in town, because that's what they were looking for during the summertime," Young says.

Still, pinpointing the exact moment when Cleveland clambakes became a Thing is tough. References to these types of events pop up in the Plain Dealer archives going back to the 1860s. On October 15th, 1866, an article titled "Great Clam Bake at Camp Gilbert: A 'Running Account' Of It" included everything from guests taking generous doses of cholera medicine in between artillery practice to the anonymous author being told a "history of clams and clam bakes," hinting that the parties were already ingrained. His verdict of the day ended with the "firm opinion that clam bakes were glorious institutions."

A Plain Dealer account of the following 1867 Camp Gilbert feast confirmed this characterization: the paper printed a gluttonous clambake menu featuring a staggering amount of seafood, meat, vegetables, and a spread of pies for dessert. A July 15th, 1878, article, meanwhile, references "a grand clam bake" in the works for September at a Euclid Ave house.

His verdict of the day ended with the "firm opinion that clam bakes were glorious institutions."

In the coming decades, clambake references continued to appear regularly, both in the society pages and event listings. (From the September 25th, 1938, Plain Dealer: "Lindsay's Sky Bar will have a musical clam bake on Oct. 6.") They became favorites of local companies and political figures, as archival photos, papers, and letters at the Western Reserve Historical Society's Research Library reveal.

Black-and-white photographs dated from 1941, 1945, and 1949 show employees of the Halle Bros. Co. (aka the now-defunct department store lovingly known as Halle's) having a grand old time at a clambake while playing horseshoes or tug of war, or chowing down on food. Posed shots reveal men in dress shirts looking raucous and slightly rumpled, perhaps because some of them were holding what looked to be beers.

Further digging revealed that at least some of these Halle clambakes pictured were for men only. "Weather Fine…Food Super…For This Year's Stag Clambake," went the headline of a two-page spread featured in the October 2nd, 1950, in-house staff newsletter The Halle Bulletin. That year, the bake took place at Mala-Cechi farm near Chardon, and featured baseball, football, and door prizes.

In light of such historical references, it's no wonder that by the time Randall Ruhlman wrote his article for The Clevelander, a monthly magazine published by the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, in 1950, clambakes were popular enough for him to be cheeky about their ubiquity.

"It's a mighty important period in our scheme of living."

"Clam bake season, the period of the expanding belt line, has come to an end for 1950," he wrote. "It's a mighty important period in our scheme of living and it runs concurrently with the corn-on-the-cob season in these parts… The average businessman, trade association member, lodge brother, union member, butcher, baker and candlestick maker attend at least two or three clam bakes a season."

More library research shows that these weren't necessarily always sedate affairs. The October 1957 Cleveland Clinic newsletter touted its annual clambake sponsored by the professional staff -- whose 100 attendees reportedly "devoured" more than 1,500 clams -- like so: "Clams and clam juice, lobster, sweet potatoes, chicken, pie, ice cream and strained ligaments met 100 members of the medical and administrative staff on Saturday afternoon, September 14, at Cyrus Eaton's Acadia Farms in Northfield. And, of course, a dignified amount of beer."

A separate letter written a few days after the bake by Jay, Eaton's grandson, casually mentioned: "I am pleased to report that Mr. Becker, our only casualty, felt fine the next day and apparently did not have any serious problem. It was a great help to have Steve drive him into the hospital."

A political party

Naturally, clambakes in Cleveland could have their political inclinations, going by former mayor Ralph J. Perk's papers at the WRHS Research Library. In 1967, the then-Cuyahoga County Auditor had a sizable election deficit from the previous year that he was trying to reduce by holding "card parties and other functions" -- for instance, a clambake. The Friends of Perk Committee sent out hard tickets to the bake with a letter referencing how much he still had to raise ($9,887.50, down from $21,000) that also touted how Perk was "one of the few public officials in modern times who refuses to have a 2% kick-back fund from his employees to pay his expenses."

The strategy was brilliant: judging by the stack of responses from law firms, banks, and individuals, many people who regretfully couldn't attend often donated money to Perk's cause anyway and also sent back tickets -- which could be given away to other people, especially senior citizens, so they could attend.

For example, one handwritten note on letterhead for Mrs. Gilbert W. Humphrey read: "Enclosed are the tickets to the clam bake on September 16th which we will be unable to attend. Also enclosed is a check to cover same, as a donation. Perhaps you will want to give the returned tickets to some friends of the Republican Party -- I hope so!!"

According to meticulous records, Perk kept up the clambake for years to come, and turned it into an annual fundraiser for his various political campaigns. In 1970, the Friends of Ralph J. Perk Committee sent out tickets with a not-so-subtle bit of messaging: "You will show your appreciation to Mr. Perk for his continuing devotion to public service and his excellent record as County Auditor by properly distributing the enclosed tickets to your many friends. If you desire more tickets they are available, and we will appreciate any additional effort to make this an even greater success than in previous years."

And a 1971 bake in advance of his successful mayoral run was promoted with a more sanguine nudge: "As you know, Ralph Perk is a candidate for mayor of Cleveland this year, and the support of his friends is greatly needed in his campaign to bring experience and integrity back to this city."

Built for the backyard

Today, Euclid Fish Company honors its founder by proudly selling Chef Comella's Original Clambake, complete with a returnable steamer. But Young knows that clambakes are malleable -- in fact, this year the company is also offering three different seafood boils: Low Country, Portland, and Mid-Atlantic. "People are kind of varying it as people's tastes have changed," he says. "I look at it as if [whether] you're going to cook salmon or clams: 'OK, what's your taste? What do you like?' It's a blank canvas. Cooking is like art."

Michael Symon has touted a (tasty) variation on a Cleveland clambake, which features shrimp and kielbasa in addition to clams. Andy Dombrowski, the corporate chef for Zack Bruell Restaurants, says the company did a "pretty traditional, straight-up" clambake at Platform Brewery back in August to celebrate the brewery's Yammy Yammy beer, but Bruell's Alley Cat Oyster Bar is planning a clambake in October which will utilize salmon in addition to the usual seafood offerings.

"It's all about being with your friends, and all about enjoying food."

To Dombrowski, the appeal of clambakes is obvious. "To me, a clambake is more of a backyard thing than necessarily a restaurant thing," he says. "I think it's a time to get together and have a party in the fall, eat and drink, and have a good time with your friends and family."

It's also ideal for a party since clams "hold up to being cooked," he notes. "It's not like something like a lobster or mussels or other kinds of shellfish, like shrimp, that if you cook them and they hang out for 45 minutes, they're tough and not very good. Clams are fine -- you dip 'em in butter, and they're good to go."

At the end of the day, despite the winding history of clambakes, the appeal is simple.

"It's all about being outside," Young says. It's all about being with your friends, and all about enjoying food. I think that's what my grandfather really believed in."

Special thanks to the Western Reserve Historical Society's Research Library. Sources used in the story include MS. 4456, Ralph J. Perk Papers; MS. 3913, Cyrus Eaton Papers; and PG. 574 Halle Bros. Co. Photographs.

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Annie Zaleski is a writer and editor in Cleveland. Follow her @anniezaleski.