Stuffies When You’re Young
by Kristin Griffin
When I think of stuffies, I think of a kitchen in West Tisbury in a house that didn’t belong to me. It was my boyfriend’s place, built by his father and decorated with care by his mother, who filled the walls with watercolor paintings and planted lacecaps by the door. I spent two summers there in my twenties, playing house between semesters at grad school. Our friends came down most weekends and we’d spread out a Land Bank map on the kitchen island to plan adventures. Often, what we did during the day factored into dinner later. Stripers we caught in Menemsha at first light were grilled whole with lemon. Blue eggs from our flock of summer hens were boiled, halved and deviled. But, more often than not, we’d make stuffies.
This all sounds pretty idyllic, I know. But it was an anxious time too, the kind that comes with being young and unsure of the big things—where I’d end up, how I’d support myself, who I’d come home to at the end of the day. During those Vineyard summers, I’d pretend to know what it felt like to have those questions answered, but of course I didn’t. None of us did. Those days were fruit in a bowl: sweet, and in spots sour, expiring all the time.
The origin of stuffies is thought to involve cash-strapped Rhode Island housewives getting creative during the Great Depression. There were plenty of quahogs around (the favored clam for stuffie-making), and bread to make them go further. Put one with the other and you’ve got a filling dinner for dimes.
The classic New England Cookbook by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln from 1894 has a recipe for ‘Clam Scallops,’ a dead ringer for stuffies, down to baking in the shell. Pared back recipes calling for baking clams in their shells with buttered breadcrumbs sprinkled on top (a clear corollary to the more involved stuffie) date back just as far, most notably to Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, first published in 1896.
Whatever the date of origin, stuffies are an undeniable New England thing. You’ll find them on the menu at most every seafood shack, a stalwart relief from steamed lobster sticker shock. Stuffies are simple, they’re cheap. You won’t need a bib or special tools to get to the good stuff; it’s all right there in the palm of your hand.
When the stuffie call was made, we all piled into my station wagon in our bathing suits, throwing buckets and plungers in the back. The shellfishing permit lived in the glove box, clam gauges already tied to bucket handles with string.
We’d set up on the beach and burn our backs in the clam flats, floating along in the water like alligators. Sometimes we’d go by sight, looking for the little mounds of sand where the quahog burrowed down. Sometimes we’d ruffle the surface with our hands, waiting for the hard notch of a shell.
Quahogs are native to the Eastern seaboard, from Prince Edward Island to the Yucután. They favor intertidal zones and are especially concentrated between New Jersey and the Cape, where salinity levels are lower than the open ocean. While they can move beneath the sand with their single foot, they don’t get far in the grand scheme of things. It’s filtering they’re about, pushing their necks out to suck seawater in. Full grown adults can filter up to a gallon of water an hour. Whatever the size, they all take what they need from what they get and let the rest go.
As any clammer will tell you, though, the search is often only the beginning. A threatened quahog has one card to play: go deeper. Thus, the plunger. I’d set the rubber cup over the hole and work at it like a clogged drain until the quahog flashed purple in a stream of sand. I’d rush to grab it before it could bury itself again. Some of them went back anyway—too small to keep—and would disappear in moments. Quahogs like to be where they like to be. I appreciated that about them.
Back at the house, someone got out the giant pot meant for lobsters and we’d all take on a task. There are few recipes as collaborative as stuffies. You’re making clam meatloaf, essentially, and meatloaf is a forgiving thing. The quahogs get steamed, the meat chopped and the shells cleaned. Chiles and onions are diced, garlic minced. These are softened in a pan with fat—maybe olive oil, maybe bacon grease leftover from breakfast. The binders are added: egg and breadcrumbs, mostly. It all gets seasoned to taste.
My favorite step was forming gentle little patties of this mixture in my hands and tucking them into the empty shells, set filling-side-up on a baking tray. All of us would swipe handfuls and soon enough there wasn’t another inch of room on the tray.
In twenty minutes or so—just when the kitchen was getting fragrant, the stuffie lids browned—we’d slide them out of the oven and eat them right off the tray with squeezes of lemon. The empty shells got stacked on the counter like plates at dim sum. A good stuffie is a study in contrast: Crisp lids and light insides, the heat of chile and the tenderness of clam belly. To eat one is to take in a little droplet of the sea, of the Vineyard, a place I missed even when I was there because I knew it wouldn’t last.
On the ferry back to Wood’s Hole, I cried as the Island minimized. “I like to think of it this way,” my boyfriend said, trying to comfort me. “You’re never leaving for the last time.” Which is to say he wasn’t. His house would be there. He’d always have a place. We, though: we were young and not right for one another and there was heartbreak on the horizon.
But on the ferry that day, I couldn’t know that within a few years a dot glowing on a map of the world, in a place I’d never heard of, would be my home. I couldn’t have pictured that I’d move there with a man who would become my husband, and we’d buy a house—a shade of green neither of us liked but with bright rooms and a big garden and the kind of heart our realtor assured us we’d find in a property one day. I couldn’t have predicted what it feels like to have keys to a home that’s mine and to open the door and have someone—him—be inside.