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Jemelene Wilson: Backyard clambake

The summer I turned 12, my family sold our house, packed up our earthly possessions and moved us from our quaint suburban Southern California neighborhood to the East Coast. The state of Maine would be our home for two years and four days exactly. Although I have never returned, somehow I never let go of its beauty. The truth is, it never let go of me.

My family decided to make a big deal over my 50th birthday last year. After all, it is my Jubilee Year. It's a time to reflect, seek the goodness in life, allow debts to be cleared or to just reset. Although I would have loved to take a trip across the country, I wanted to spend it with those who are in my life right now, speaking into my heart at present or the not too distant past. I wanted to honor folks I call family in a small way.

After much deliberation and perusing the blog of a friend, we settled on an idea. A clambake! If you’re unfamiliar with a clambake, it is so much more than seafood. With our own western twist, we would invite the East Coast to my backyard for a night. We took a little inspiration from Pinterest, a few trips to the store and using some things we had around the house, we had ourselves a celebration that fed my soul and so much more.

Under a borrowed canopy adorned with hundreds of lights, two rows of tables were set end to end. We covered the lengths with white shabby tablecloths passed down from my grandmother. With dark blue runners, we set the tables with bistro plates from the dollar tree. A mish mash of flatware was arranged along with various candles, mason jars and bowls of lemons to add spots of color throughout. Chalkboards were set amongst the dishes describing what delight would be offered.

The salads were made ahead of time so they could be chilled to perfection. For appetizers, we simply laid out assorted crackers with a variety of cheeses. Grapes overflowed pedestal plates and friends gathered for pre-dinner conversation. Tea and spa water were poured into tall drink dispensers. My son-in-law strategically placed marshmallows into a round bowl for the S’mores table near the firepit. The largest chafing dishes were used to bake blueberry/peach cobbler from Mom’s best recipe. My dear friend jumped into the kitchen with my brother to fill the roasters with potatoes, corn, shrimp, sausage and clams, of course.

When it was time to eat, Elvis belted out his famous tune from the iPod, “Clambake! Gonna have a Clambake!” We gathered, gave thanks for birthdays, friends and delicious food. Eating with our hands as butter dripped down our wrists, I was aware that this moment would be a treasure. Sharing food with those you love creates a bond of common experience. While feeding ourselves, we were nourishing our souls with an ingredient we all need - connection.

The best parties aren’t about being impressive; they’re about loving one another. Relaxing, celebrating milestones and hearing each other’s stories make us richer. As we take time from our lives to try something new, we grow as a community and flourish in our own families. In our creativity, we learn to make beautiful things out of whatever we have. Whether we call on a friend or dig in our attics, we can draw on what we have in order to make space for our friends.

As we headed to bed that evening, I pointed to the stack of plates on the counter. “Leave those for me” I told my husband. “I know you’ll want to get up early and get those done, but I want to do them this time.” The next morning, submerging my arms in soapy hot water, I found myself praying blessings for every person who ate from those plates. Each dirty dish was a reminder of how very blessed I am and hope to be another 50 years from now.

Caprese Salad

3 pounds grape tomatoes, washed and cut in half

1 tub mozzarella balls, drained

20 – 30 leaves fresh basil, washed and thinly cut

Sea salt to taste

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Balsamic vinegar for drizzling

Lightly toss tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Drizzle with oil and a small amount of balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This salad is a family tradition. It’s a must-have for big celebrations. We made this for my daughter’s graduation and forgot to pull it out of the refrigerator before the party was over. It still didn’t go to waste.

Acini De Pepe Salad

1 cup white sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 3/4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 quarts water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 (16 ounce) package acini di pepe pasta

3 (11 ounce) cans mandarin oranges, drained

2 (20 ounce) cans pineapple tidbits, drained

1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

1 (8 ounce) container frozen whipped topping, thawed

1 cup miniature marshmallows

In a sauce pan, combine sugar, flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pineapple juice and eggs. Stir and cook over medium heat until thickened. Remove from heat; add lemon juice and cool to room temperature.

Bring water to a boil, add oil, remaining salt and cook pasta until al dente. Rinse under cold water and drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, egg mixture, mandarin oranges, pineapple and whipped topping. Mix well and refrigerate overnight or until chilled. Before serving add marshmallows. Toss and serve.

Backyard Clambake

A traditional clambake involves seaweed, hot rocks and a whole day to cook. You can cut down on the process without losing the charm and flavor. Although this calls for a stockpot, my friend used a turkey fryer with great results. I made the mistake of using roasters, which were uneven and took much too long.

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed

3 large white or yellow onions

2 pounds Kielbasa, cut in 3-inch sections

10 ears of corn, cut in ½ or 3 pieces

2 pounds large shrimp, deveined but still in shell

4 pounds clams (preferably littleneck), soaked and scrubbed

1 lobster per person (optional)

Old Bay seasoning

4 bottles Guinness

Layer potatoes, onions and sausage on the bottom of 16- to 20-quart stockpot. Sprinkle with Old Bay seasoning and two bottles of Guinness. Layer corn, shrimp and clams on top. Sprinkle with more Old Bay and pour remaining bottles of Guinness over top. Cook for at least a half an hour on high. Serves 4 to 6

G’Mas Cobbler Batter

1 cup sugar

1 cup flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 cup milk

1 cube butter

Mix all ingredients together to form batter. Pour on the bottom of a lightly greased baking dish. Pour sweetened and thickened berries or peaches on top. (I rarely sweeten the fruit and have never found the need to thicken them.) Cake will rise through fruit. Bake at 375 degrees until brown - not doughy.

Jemelene Wilson is married with two daughters and a son-in-law. Read her Tuesdays on Douglas County Moms. Also check out her personal blog here.

Eating with our hands as butter dripped down our wrists, I was aware that this moment would be a treasure. Sharing food with those you love creates a bond of common experience. While feeding ourselves, we were nourishing our souls with an ingredient we all need - connection.

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The News-Review Updated Nov 18, 2013 07:30PM Published Jul 16, 2013 10:22AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.