The Northern Quahog | Up Close

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Photo/Art by Teubner Foodfoto GmbH/Stockfood

The deep waters of the open ocean are too salty for the northern quahog’s comfort, so these hard-shelled clams live buried in the sandy bottoms of estuaries along the Atlantic coast. They’re most prevalent between Cape Cod and New Jersey, with Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay a prime source.

Ever ask, “What’s the official state mollusk of Rhode Island?” It’s the quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria). ‘Twas made official by the state legislature in 1987.

Stuffed quahogs, a.k.a. “stuffies,” are a delectable mixture of breadcrumbs, diced clams, and spices baked on the half-shell. Rhode Island’s Depression-era homemakers popularized the recipe, making a protein-packed and satisfying meal from inexpensive local ingredients. The Portuguese tradition calls for adding linguica or chourico (spicy sausage) to “stuffies.”

Shucking quahogs can be tricky. They’re less likely to “clam up” if they’ve been chilled for several hours before you try prying them open (with a special shucking knife).

The northern quahog is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids: approximately 13 grams of protein and just 74 calories in a 3.5-ounce serving.

Quahog-speak: “Littlenecks” are the wee ones (1 7/8—2 1/8 inches long), often bringing the best price at market; midsize are either “top necks” or “cherrystones”; and “chowder” clams are the largest, with thick (often purple) inner shells, measuring over 3 inches.

In Rhode Island, the northern quahog generally grows to legal harvesting size by the time it’s 3 to 4 years old. For those that avoid the likes of blue crabs and commercial shellfishermen, a lifespan of 40-plus years is possible.

In 2011 a northern quahog found in the Buzzards Bay area of Cape Cod was determined to be at least 106 years old—the oldest of its species on record. Age can be determined by counting the concentric growth rings on the bivalve’s shell. (One member of a different clam family, a deep-water ocean quahog—Artica islandica—is on record as the world’s oldest animal: 507 years.)

Rhode Island shellfishermen harvested a high of five million pounds in 1955. Over the years wild fluctuations in quahog hauls—and recent flat prices—have led to a reduction in commercial shellfishing. More than $1 million was invested to develop the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan in 2013, a two-year initiative with the goal of managing the state’s valuable resources, working in tandem with individuals and organizations.

SethSeth MacFarlane (LEFT) was studying animation at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-’90s when he crafted the adult-themed animated sitcom Family Guy, set in the fictional town of Quahog, Rhode Island.

The term “quahog” comes from the Narragansett Indian name poquauhock, recorded by Roger Williams in his 17th-century writings about the “little thick shel-fish the Indians wade deepe and dive for.” The Narragansetts ate the meat and crafted the quahog’s valuable purple shells into wampum. The scientific name, Mercenaria mercenaria, is Latin, meaning “hired for wages,” a reference to wampum’s use as currency. In the mid-1600s wampum was accepted by Harvard University as tuition payment; with English money scarce in the Colonies, fees were often paid in commodities.

Quahogs feed by filtering microscopic algae from the water. Large clams can filter 1 gallon per hour, naturally improving the water quality in the areas they inhabit.


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