For quite a while I’ve wanted to write something about quahogs but haven’t felt properly inspired. I’ve had clams on the brain. To paraphrase James Taylor, in my mind I’ve gone to Rhode Island. This is not hyperbole. For me the quahog is where my recreational pastimes have intersected with my professional life and where my soul-sustaining love of being on the water meets my physical need for sustenance. The quahog is many things. These days we just think of it as a food animal but in the past it was a currency; it was used in an art form that told the history of the first peoples of New England; it was the foundation of Pre-Colombian trade networks which reached far inland to people who never saw the ocean; it saved the Pilgrims from starvation (maybe); and even today, the quahog gives Rhode Island a reason to exist. It is a beautifully efficient creature, turning the tiny organisms it has filtered from the sea into an ever expanding, self-sustaining fortress; living and growing and multiplying in defiance of its many enemies who seek the delicious salty flesh hidden within.
The etymology of the term quahog is the subject of some dispute. If like me you have access to the Google machine, the kernels of factiness that follow are at your fingertips as well. The earliest citations of the word date to 1643 when Roger Williams, religious non-conformist, free thinker, abolitionist, student of native tongue and ultimate bad ass, made reference to the Naragansett word poquauhock which literally meant “horse fish”. In 1758 ur-taxonomist Linneaus dubbed it mercenaria mercenaria which he derived from the latin for wages, as a reference to the use of quahog shell-derived wampum beads as a means of exchange. Fun fact for all you parents who face having to pay tuition at a private college: Harvard University at one time accepted wampum in lieu of tuition! Suck on that Sallie Mae! I mean, I thought it was pretty cool paying half of one year of my daughter’s tuition by cashing in whisky futures but could you imagine rolling up to the comptroller’s office with a wheel barrow full of quahog shell? All kidding aside, woven belts of wampum beads contained pictorial icons and messages which had social, spiritual and historical significance far beyond its value as a currency. Thank you Google.
At my raw bar people often ask me, “Did you catch these clams yourself?”, and because of my juvenile sense of humor (that even catholic school failed to beat out of me) I invariably respond with something like, “Yes, but it was hard. They are lightning fast and if they pick up your scent the whole herd will be galloping away in an instant.” I will grant you, it is amazing I don’t get punched in the face more often. However, no-one who has been clamming would ever make it sound as if it was more of a hunting activity than one involving gathering. There is no stalking, cutting for sign, or sitting on stand when hunting clams, getting downwind is not an issue and there will never be any need to mask your aroma will that of quahog urine, which whether it exists or not, is perfect for my raw bar shtick. “What makes these clams taste different from others?” “Well ma’am the local quahogs are unable to process (a fake but real sounding mineral) in their urine so it builds up in their flesh creating the unique flavor profile you’ve noticed.” Anyway, the clams aren’t going anywhere, at least not very fast. They do have the means to self-propel with what we call their foot but not so much that hot pursuit is required, unless hot pursuit is what you do while drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. It’s all about figuring out where they live and then telling everyone they live somewhere else.
Off-shore dragger boats dredge up quahogs and their cousins the sea clam (artica islandica) in massive quantities to satisfy the needs of Red Lobster, Legal Seafoods, Dinty Moore and virtually everywhere else you will ever be served a dish purporting to be clam-based. It is necessary. It is hard to imagine a the number of guys who would have to be out with rakes to satisfy demand of the great mass of hooples out there. It wouldn’t make sense economically and most likely all the good spots in the shallows would be depleted. Thus the continued existence of Rhode Island.
When I talk about clamming I mean the kind that takes place near shore. Whether using a rake to scratch them up or finding them by feel with your toes and pulling them up with your hands, the satisfaction felt after filling a basket with clams is hard to beat. If it’s a warm summer day, digging up a bunch of quahogs with friends and eating them immediately builds bonds that making a bunch on bologna sandwiches could never match. Afterwards, cooking on a nearby beach, whether making chowder, linguine and clam sauce, deep frying in oil, it just tastes better and it never hurts to pop a few small ones to eat raw while doing so. It’s always good for the soul even when it’s not the nicest day. For every time out getting the vicarious thrill of digging up those first ones with newbies and kids there are an equal number of times when it’s windy and cold or the tide is wrong but i I’ve got a gig coming up and pride dictates that if possible I will be serving something I got myself and so I go.
One time, near Thanksgiving a friend and I decided we would treat our families to clams casino in the evening. We set out from Hither Creek on his boat and arriving at our spot discovered that not only had we gotten the tide completely wrong but it was in fact unusually high. After using science (touching the bottom with a clam rake) to determine the depth we judged that the spot was still clammable. Because it was cold we both had neoprene chest waders to wear, so we geared up and my friend went in first. The water level seemed well shy of his armpits but unfortunately it was choppy and water was immediately began sloshing over the top of his waders, filling the inside. Now if you’ve ever worn chest waders you know this is the worst case scenario, it’s like wearing a really cold waterballon, you become like that girl in Willie Wonka who chews the gum that’s a meal, except instead of being a giant blueberry rolled away by Oompa Loompas, you’re brown and in danger of drowning. After I’d helped pull his waterlogged ass back on the boat, we had a drink of rum because, you know, boats and, thinking caps firmly fixed in place, both agreed that my additional few inches of height would keep me from meeting his cold, soggy fate, (which in retrospect he was a suspiciously strong proponent of) and having come so far loathed the idea of returning home empty handed. Kids, don’t drink rum and clam, at high tide, when it’s cold out.
The Quahog is the pig of the sea. That’s the phrase that’s been knocking around in my head since this time last year. If the point of comparison is the sheer culinary versatility of the food animal, it is indisputable that none on land match the domesticated hog and that in the ocean, the humble little neck clam has no rival. It is a sure sign of my fading juvenile spirit that the best I can do anymore to make light of their similar names is this phrase; too much hog, for any one mouth , which completely lacks the winking, adolescent while still slightly transgressive charm (or so I thought until recently) I have always been fond of employing. But while distinct traditions of hog butchery and preparation have rich histories from Europe to Latin America, across the US to the Pacific Rim into Asia and well okay, everywhere, each making use of the animal in countless preparations; there is, due to the fact that the Quahog only exists in abundance on the Northeast Coasts of the US and Canada, only one Quahog cuisine.
Certainly there are sea creatures who can deliver a taste, one taste, more sublime than any individual quahog preparation, (the belly of the bluefin tuna springs to mind) but none come close to matching its versatility. Did I just mention toro sashimi? Well dammit a small littleneck clam served raw on the half shell is pretty good too. Squeeze a little lemon on there and maybe a drop of your favorite hot sauce but please, keep that cocktail sauce away! That clam didn’t spend years filtering thousands of gallons of sea water, turning itself into a robust flavor bomb for you to ruin it with ketchup. If you must have tomato and clam make a Clamdigger, a bloody mary with Clamato instead of tomato juice and shucked liitleneck floater. Bliss.
Clams can be baked in the oven. Shuck a mess of cherrystones add a pinch of chopped bacon, some bread crumbs and a nice compound butter then broil. When you bring out a tray of these tasty clams casino be sure to warn your guests against scalding their mouths by gulping them down to quickly. Not that someone won’t ignore you and turn the roof of their mouth into string cheese but at least you will be protect from litigation. What about stuffies? Remove the meat from a bunch of large quahogs and chop it, add bread crumbs and minced onion, celery, red pepper and whatever other veggies you like, stuff back in the shell and bake until brown. Two of them and you’re good Cap!
Do you like Italian food? Few pasta dishes are as simple or classic as linguine and clam sauce. Boil your linguine to a firm al dente and put it aside. Get a good pile of quahogs and shuck them, reserving the liquor. Make a large saute pan really hot and cover the bottom with olive oil, add a good bit of minced garlic to sizzle but don’t let it get brown. Pour in half of the clam liquor. Let things get bubbly. Add a couple sensible portions of linguine and stir allowing the linguine to absorb some of the liquor, adding more if needed. It should be able to bubble without swimming in liquid. Add the chopped clam meat, stir for 30 seconds, throw in a handful of chopped parsley. Done. Serve topped with a nice parmesan cheese.
Years ago I got one of those cheap turkey fryers they have on sale at Home Depot for thirty bucks. Thanksgiving that year was a great success. A fully cooked turkey that is juicy on the inside and has crispy skin in a half an hour? Genius. The next summer another genius (I believe it was my wife) suggested that we fry a turkey on the beach. This was also a big hit. Later, while digesting, the obvious became clear, just because it’s called a turkey fryer that doesn’t mean you can’t fry other things in it as well, after all this is America! Soon enough that can-do spirit led to a brave new world of beach cooking: the fry up, and one rather obvious candidate for frying, the quahog, was both abundant and close at hand. My favorite way to fry clams is to roll them in flour, then drop the doughy nuggets in buttermilk before finally coating them in panko. The downside of this boom in frying was that it left our non-gluten tolerant amigos standing around wearing plaintive drooling dog expressions on their faces and no-one needs that. The arrival on the market of a gluten free baking mix called Cup 4 Cup has remedied this sad inequity and now all can enjoy the beach fry.
As I pointed out earlier the clam is the shape shifter of the sea, a bivalve Zelig, its only culinary limits being those of your imagination. I’ve eaten tasty thin crust pizza with a white clam sauce. You can put whole clams on the grill until they pop open and serve with melted butter for dipping or if you’re too lazy to light a fire steam them in a pot. It’s all good and for once that is actually true. Face it, any really good seafood stew whether it’s cioppino or bouillabaise or some weird portagee concoction from Rhode Island, it needs clams, but if you were going to pick the definitive clam dish it would have to be chowder. Making chowder on the beach is easier than it sounds, there apparently are even competitions where this skill is put to the test, where so-called chowder kings are crowned but it is hard to imagine that one could find a group of judges with the ability to discern a true championship chowder from the great unwashed mass of wannabes.
In any place that experiences a hard winter, summer is the indispensable season. A time to soak in the Vitamin D. A time to shake off the seasonal affective disorder, to put aside that suicide note you’ve been composing and get outside. In Hawai’i you always know, more likely than not, tomorrow will bring another beautiful day but when it’s summer in New England there is a sense of urgency, we get two months when, if we’re lucky, it might be nice out and so dammit, the forecast might say cloudy with a 50 percent chance of rain but we’re going to do something outside. For those of us who live on the coast the beach is our summer playground; surfing, sunning, swimming, volleyball and other sports, some too lame to mention like that one with the trampoline and the ball; a day at the beach is about all those those thing and more. It’s about cooling out under an umbrella having food and drink with the people you love. It’s about the secret spot, the place that you go with your family and your friends, the families with whom you form a tribe by consent. Sure, other people can go there too, there’s no stopping them, but because you’ve made it yours you’ll laugh amongst yourselves, while you sing and drink and prepare your meals, watching them flounder around with their shiny rakes and baskets 20 feet from where you just scored, knowing that enough clams to last the summer still lie there in the sand, silently filtering.