by Robert Booz
As a kid, I used to visit my best friend at his grandparents’ summer cottage in Indian Neck, Branford, Connecticut. Well, to be more accurate, I visited my friend in the small apartment that his father had built over the garage of his grandparents’ summer cottage. It was just up the street from where the Long Island Sound lapped against a varyingly muddy, sandy, and rocky shoreline, broken up by a small beach and the rotted remains of an old pier. Embarrassingly, I remember arguing over the lyrics of a New Kids On The Block song while playing near that pier. But what I remember most about those summer visits and that stretch of shoreline, though, is gathering clams. A whole group of us kids would take milk crates out into the water with us at low tide and feel around with our toes in the squishy mud for the hard, ribbed shells of quahogs. When our crates were nearly running over with the corduroyed grey bivalves, we’d pull them back to shore and dutifully hand them off to the adults for sorting. Every clam had its use. The smaller littlenecks might find their way into a seafood pasta or onto a homemade pizza. The medium-sized cherrystones were often turned into stuffed clams or steamed with wine and herbs and pulled from their shells to be chilled and tossed with a vinaigrette. The largest and meatiest quahogs were reserved for chowder. Always though, a number of the littlenecks and cherrystones would be pulled out, thrown onto a hot grill, and treated with a pour of melted butter as they popped open.
These days, between my shockingly red beard and my love of fishy tastes, my fiancée’s Norwegian mother is convinced that I’ve got Viking blood somewhere in my veins. (I can’t speak to the former, but I suspect the latter has something to do with growing up in New England.) Raw, dried, smoked, poached, grilled, fried, or fermented, I haven’t yet come across a seafood that I don’t enjoy, but quahogs are up there at the top of the list.
Native to the east coast of the United States (extending up into Canada and all the way down to the Yucatán Peninsula), hard clams are an integral part of New England cuisine. Traditional clambakes (the kind where potatoes and corn and clams and lobsters and on, and on, are steamed between layers and layers of seaweed) have their origins in the cuisines of the native cultures that inhabited this land long before any European settlers arrived. Seafood, particularly the clam, is now, and has always been, an important part of the bounty of New England and Martha’s Vineyard. It nourished those that came before us, and hopefully it will persevere to nourish those that come after us ad infinitum. Still, I wish I could say that I loved quahogs for their rich, historical significance, but I can’t. I love them because they taste delicious.
I’ve heard chef after chef say that oysters are the essential culinary expression of the ocean. While it’s true that tasting certain oysters (particularly the plump, briny ones found in the cold waters of the North Atlantic) feels like taking a lick of a cool ocean breeze, nothing quite captures the spirit of the ocean for me quite like a raw quahog. That burst of briny sweetness from the clam’s liquor that gives way to the earthy, chewy goodness of the clam’s meat is like a wave of flavor breaking on the palate. Don’t get me wrong—I’d happily sit down and eat my fill of raw oysters, but I’ll always prefer a good clam on the half shell for its pure, salty expression of the Atlantic.
Clams have also brought me one of my most sacred indulgences, and something decidedly less pure than it’s raw cousin: the whole-belly clam roll. If you like seafood, how could you not love a meal that involves a ton of deep-fried shellfish on a buttered, wonder bread-like roll slathered with the rich tang of tartar sauce? Unless you’re a cardiologist, you’d be crazy not to go for that. (If you haven’t tried one on the Island yet, may I suggest heading to the Net Result immediately?)
There are a myriad of ways to prepare quahogs—more than I could possibly go into here. (Another selling point for the food, I think.) Their fine flavor, versatility in preparation, and sheer abundance is probably why nearly every native and immigrant population to land on the shores of New England has found a way to incorporate the bivalve into their diet. From the Native American clambake to the French-Acadian dairy-based chowder, the Italian white clam pizza to the Portuguese combination of linguica and clams, the quahog is a defining element not just of the New England coastline, but of the New England kitchen.
So buy some clams, and get cooking. Better yet, go gather them yourself (after checking your local regulations, of course). They’re sitting in the mud, waiting just for you.