Beyond the Lobster: Food Finds in Cape Cod

by  Donna Tunney | Jun 18, 2014
Oysters / Artit_Wongpradu/iStock

Each summer tens of thousands of vacationers arrive on Cape Cod, a spit of land in southeastern Massachusetts that juts out 40 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Along with sunbathing, swimming, and boating, most visitors have a hearty lobster dinner on their bucket list of things to enjoy. There’s good reason for that -- but there's much more to Cape Cod cuisine than the tasty crustacean.

The peninsula -- bordered on the north by Cape Cod Bay, on the south by Nantucket Sound, and on the east by the Atlantic -- has a long history of traditional recipes. Some of these date as far back as the late 17th century, when several of the Cape's 15 towns were founded.

Fish stews, fried clams, oysters on the half-shell, and old-style Portuguese dishes are available up and down the Cape, and the region is known for its many colorful, organic cranberry bogs. But rather than go from restaurant to restaurant sampling the region's cuisine, we suggest these five educational ways to experience local foods:

1. Go clamming.
Towns on the north side of the Cape issue permits that enable visitors to dig into the Cape Cod Bay flats at low tide, searching for clams. All you need is a rake and a bucket. Head out onto the sandy flats, look for the tell-tale bubbles in the sand that indicate the presence of clams, and start raking. In an hour's time, you'll likely have a bucket full of the tender quahogs. This is especially great for those who rent home on the Cape and have kitchens to steam or grill the catch. Otherwise, local clams will definitely be on plenty of restaurant menus.

2. Learn about oyster aquaculture.
Several bayside towns lease sections of the bay flats to oyster farmers. Wellfleet oysters are known the world over, and other towns, such as Brewster, have started oyster farms just in the last few years. At low tide, stroll out onto the flats and take a close look at these farms. You'll see rows upon rows of low-lying cages that house the growing oysters, and you might even meet one of the farmers. Again, local restaurants regularly feature these oysters.

3. Try a fish shack.
Cape Cod has a wide variety of upscale dining venues with excellent reputations, but if you're looking for a traditional dish of fried fish and chips, or a fish sandwich, look for the most unassuming, ramshackle fish shack. Many are found at town harbors and landings, which means that they're getting fresh fish right off the commercial boats. You can try the towns of Orleans and Wellfleet, among others.

4. Look to the old country.
Provincetown, at the eastern tip of the Cape, has watery roots planted in the Portuguese culture. Portuguese fishermen settled in the town centuries ago, and the country's traditional dishes -- such as meat pies, sweet bread, and an array of pastries -- are still served in restaurants, fish shacks, and bakeries. Stroll along the town's busy Commercial Street and you'll find them easy enough.

5. Visit a cranberry bog.
Cape Cod has dozens of cranberry bogs that can be seen from its rural roads and its hiking and biking trails. In late summer, the bogs are beginning to turn red -- making them prime scenics for vacation pictures. To get a taste of the berries, local ones can be spotted on dessert menus at top restaurants, in local grocery stores, and at farmers markets. And they take many forms beyond the popular cranberry apple pies, be it a cranberry relishes or cranberry cocktails. To see the harvest, schedule your visit for October.

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