If you are from Rhode Island, you know what I mean. If you’re from anywhere else, let me explain.
This is a quahog. It’s a beautiful and tasty bivalve mollusk found in the waters surrounding Rhode Island and in many other Atlantic coastal communities. It’s an animal we dig up in the bay and estuaries, prepare it, cook it and eat it. If you’ve lived in Rhode Island for more than twenty minutes, you’ve probably eaten one or two of these critters.
For me, a picture of a quahog brings back fond memories of my youth. I think of old times digging clams with my father, eating my mother’s clam cakes and clam chowder, and enjoying my brother’s famous stuffies.
Yes, this simple picture activates my senses. Smells, tastes, and sensations return to me and I’m twelve years old again walking along Mt. Hope Bay in Rhode Island with my father. And all is well with the world.
What initially strikes me as I look at this picture of a quahog is not the clam itself but the mud underneath it. Yes, the mud. Let’s start there.
There are lots of different kinds of mud in Rhode Island. The mud in the Kickemuit River is different from the mud in Mt. Hope Bay. And the mud in Conklin’s Cove is different from the mud in the broader bay. All of these varieties of ooziness harbor clams.
In this picture, I suspect this mud is from the Kickemuit River. Having dug clams there, I can smell it’s very “flavor.” I can feel it’s viscosity. I well know how walking in the depths of this mud can suck your boots right off of you. More than once while clam digging, I walked away from a mud encounter with only one boot. Returning later to extricate the lone boot from the jealous and possessive muck. Enough about mud.
The real fun of quahogs is eating them.
And eat them we did. First, and most importantly, we ate them in clam chowder.
My mother made the tastiest clam chowder the world has ever known. Didn’t all our Rhode Island mothers? I remember my mother would put a little square of butter on top of the creamy New England clam chowder just before serving it. Real butter. Was it the butter that added the flavor or her Irish love that gave it the extra savory flavor? It’s hard to know. Suffice it to say, the quahogs in this soup were delicious.
Next, we ate quahogs in clam cakes. These little fried balls of dough were made with eggs, flour and baking soda. They aren’t really cakes at all but more like fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside fried dough snacks. My mother made the best clam cakes, too. I think she tossed a little sugar into her batter to give it an extra flavor boost. I think of these things when I see a picture of quahogs.
Lastly, we ate quahogs in, the king of all quahog delights, the “New England Stuffie.” Now, I’d like to suggest my mother made the best stuffies but I’m afraid, while her’s were good, this family honor falls on the shoulders of my brother.
Stuffies are the seafood version of Thanksgiving stuffing. The dressing in these creations, however, is quahog based. Once the “stuffing” is prepared it’s piled on the inside of half of a quahog shell and baked. There are all kinds of delightful additions to the quahogs baked into this stuffie. Linguiça, spices, bread, onions, garlic, and other ingredients all make their way into a flavorful New England Stuffie.
Besides the culinary delights quahogs bring to mind, they also remind me of other aspects of my youth. A quahog is a reminder of lazy August Sunday afternoons shared with family and friends on the back deck of my family home.
A day like this began with my mom handing my sister and I a bag of freshly picked corn on the cob and an empty brown paper bag. We’d sit on the porch peeling the corn eager for the afternoon cook-out. Burgers, clam cakes, lobsters, and buttery sweet corn on the cob were all part of the feast and animated the social environment filled with cousins, friends, and family. Quahogs remind me of this.
Many of these memories are in the past for me but Rhode Islanders still enjoy these quahog recipes and family gatherings even today. I’m happy to report, my brother, though no longer living in Rhode Island, still makes a mean New England Stuffie.
So, these are just a few thoughts that come to mind when I see a picture of a quahog. I think I’ll make a point of enjoying some clam cakes and a New England Stuffie next time I’m in Rhode Island. What regional cuisine activates warm memories for you? Feel free to add a comment.