You’ve Likely Never Heard of This Super Regional Dish

Even though it comes from New York

Photo by Rico Kdder / EyeEm via Getty Images

In East Hampton, New York, locals refer to themselves as “Bonackers.” The term originates in the town’s Accabonac Harbor, and also with the first white settlers to the area. Here, in this eastern Long Island hamlet — where I happen to live — you will find the Bonac clam pie, a savory mélange of (steamed or raw) local clams; potatoes (mashed, whipped, or cubed); onions; possibly celery; perhaps bacon; some herbs or spices, or both; and either a broth- or cream-based sauce, all heaped between flaky crusts that may be made with lard, or butter, or even shortening.

The Bonac clam pie, in its fluidity, dates back to at least 1896, when the recipe was first recorded by the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society of East Hampton. That recipe, actually, calls for nothing more than chopped shellfish, eggs, milk, broth, seasoning, and two non-specific pie crusts. (The recipe’s author, Ann Parsons, simply writes, “rich.”) Historically, this was a dish of access. Costly meat may have been hard to procure during challenging times, but not clams, which any working person could rake up. The pie became a way to stretch provisions, to add protein to pantry items like lard and flour, producing something stunning.

“It was a meal that was supposed to be filling,” said James Beard Award nominated-chef Jeremy Blutstein, who currently works as the executive chef for Gurney’s Star Island Resort & Marina in Montauk. “If you’re working outside all day long, you need something with a high-calorie intake. Clams were cheap because they were free.”

Blutstein, who moved to Amagansett in 1991, was first introduced to clam pie at school. “I remember kids bringing clam pie with them in their lunches,” he said. Blutstein’s own iteration uses potatoes (mashed, not whipped), salt, raw chowder and Cherrystone clams, clam stock, lemon zest, and parsley, encased in a blind-baked, duck fat-based dough.

Clam pie is about memory and preference, and to make one is a warm reminder of the cultural currency of food.

“New England clam chowder in a pie shell,” Charlotte Klein Sasso, who owns Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett with her husband, Bruce, said of the pie. When the Sassos purchased Stuart’s in 1997, Charlotte sought to reintroduce the pie to the market’s roster of prepared foods; the market had been open since the ’50s, but had discontinued the pie. Referencing old cookbooks and consulting local fishermen, she developed a recipe that energized a fan base. “People who love them buy them in multiples so that they can put them in the freezer,” she said. Her recipe features raw chowder and ocean clams, potatoes (cubed), celery, onions, parsley, seasoning, and heavy cream, but neither clam stock nor pork fat.

Clam pie is about memory and preference. “My dad was a great fisherman. These are the closest things to my dad’s,” Stuart’s regular Lynn Mottolese told me. Since Stuart’s reintroduced the pies, she has been a loyalist, revisiting this food memory of her youth. With that latitude in mind, I developed my own version. Salt pork was a larder staple in East Hampton homes in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; my own crust calls for a blend of lard and butter. Draped over potatoes (fork-mashed), bacon, and steamed hard-shelled clams, the pie is a warm reminder of the cultural currency of food.

Bonac clam pie. Photo courtesy Stuart’s Seafood Market

Bonac Clam Pie

Ingredients

Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
8 tablespoons chilled lard, cubed
4 to 10 tablespoons ice water

Filling
3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups clam juice
1 cup milk
5 strips bacon, cut into lardons
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 yellow onion, peeled and minced
1⁄4 cup chopped parsley leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
Zest from one lemon
½ teaspoon ground mustard
3 cups Cherrystone clams, steamed and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into cubes
1 egg, beaten

Instructions

In a food processor, pulse together flour and salt. Add fats and pulse until chickpea-sized pieces form. Add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the dough just comes together. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic, and pound into a disc. Refrigerate for at least two hours.

Boil the potatoes in the clam juice over medium heat, until fork-tender. Set aside 1 cup of cooking water. Drain, mash with a fork, and reserve.

Over medium heat, sauté bacon until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Add the celery and onion to the fat and sauté over low heat until translucent. Remove from heat and let cool.

Combine cooked bacon, celery, and onions, parsley, thyme, lemon zest, rosemary, ground mustard, clams, flour, half of the reserved cooking water, ½ cup of the milk, and potatoes in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. If the resulting mixture seems dry (consistency should be slightly thinner than a gravy), add the remaining liquids.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a floured surface, roll the dough into two 12-inch circles. Transfer one circle to a 9-inch deep pie pan. Add the filling and top with chilled butter. Cover with the remaining crust and trim the overhang from the sides. Seal the edges by crimping with a fork. With a sharp knife, cut a hole in the center of the pie for steam.

Brush crust and edges with beaten egg. Season crust top with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bake until golden and bubbling, 50–55 minutes. Serve warm.

Hannah Selinger writes about food, wine, travel, parenting, lifestyle, and everything else. She lives in East Hampton, NY. Read more at www.hannahselinger.net.

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