My GLORIOUS Citizens! The Sultan of Seafood, The Monarch of the Marine – YOUR TFD! – has a pure and abiding love for the humble clam, particularly in an Italian or Italian-American leitmotif. Whether it’s linguine con vongole, Italian-American clam oreganata dip, or clams Casino – I am egalitarian in my pure and limpid love for this meaty bivalve! Add in a hybrid Portuguese lineage, a respectful nod to Thanksgiving stuffing and you get the undisputed, masterpiece that ALONE are Rhode Island stuffies – the quahog clam perfected, as it were!
If you’re a fan of the hit TV show ‘Family Guy’, then you are familiar with the name ‘quahog’ – but you may not be aware that a quahog is in fact a very large clam renowned equally for its superb flavor and legendary toughness (which is why the meat is ALWAYS chopped fine or ground). Quahogs are large hard-shelled clams native to this area, the ones used in the chowders and clam cakes. ‘Quahog’ comes from the Narragansett Indian name ‘poquaûhock’; the Narragansetts cultivated the clams for food and ornaments, and introduced them to the area’s first European settlers.
For today’s dish, the clam meat gets chopped up and mixed with bread crumbs, herbs, and finely-diced onion, as well as peppers and celery. The whole savory combination is then baked in a clam shell – and devoured across the state. You simply can’t miss stuffies while in Rhode Island – it may be a ‘blink and miss it’ state, but it punches WAY above its weight class when it comes to clam dishes. Rhode Island clam chowder is in fact my favorite form of chowder for its pure, oceanic flavor!
In the maritime state of Rhode Island, stuffies are considered a poor man’s dish that is nonetheless highly revered. Being near the coast in Rhode Island, there are Italian and Portuguese communities that helped to popularize the recipe. Stuffed clams became known by their local name, ‘stuffies’. No one can put an exact date on the origin of the dish, but it is thought to have been an invention of Italian and Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island. ‘Stuffies’ are nostalgic and comforting and the seafood-enhanced cousin of turkey stuffing.
Seafood-enhanced stuffings are old American or English coelacanths – survivors of a long-gone age! You can still see oyster-enhanced stuffing in some New England households at Thanksgiving and on the Christmas table in England. Like so many other old New England recipes – and yes, Rhode Island is the southernmost state of New England! – this is a colonial recipe enhanced by immigrants from Southern Europe (Italy and Portugal) to in fact become a SUPERIOR dish to its distant ancestor! Stuffies have vibrant flavors that are unique and addictive – trust Me, they’re DELICOUS!
As noted in this excerpted post from newenglandhistoricalsociety.com:
If you know anything about Rhode Island, you know the quahog is sacred and peculiar to America’s smallest and wateriest state. But it wasn’t always so. Another mollusk harvested from Narragansett Bay dominated Rhode Island cuisine for centuries. We know that because Roger Williams in 1643 described the Narragansett Indians fishing for oysters. But World War II, pollution and hurricanes wiped out the Narragansett Bay oyster industry. The quahog then took center stage.
Oystering in Narragansett Bay, like most fisheries, went through a series of ups and downs over the years. In 1700, oyster fishermen harvested the mollusks – but for their shells, to make lime. The Rhode Island legislature banned the practice in 1734 as a waste of good oyster meat. More oyster regulations followed as circumstances dictated. In 1766, the legislature tried to prevent overfishing by requiring oysters to be harvested with tongs. Three decades later, the state started closing oyster beds for the same reason.
Then during the 19th century, the General Assembly passed legislation to encourage oyster fishing and aquaculture. But by 1896, the oyster beds started to diminish because of industrial pollution. The Providence Gas Co. got itself sued in 1905 for polluting the Narragansett Bay. Boats dredging for oysters, around 1875. The vessel tows the dredge along the bottom of the sea collecting the bottom-dwelling oysters.
THE GREAT HURRICANE OF 1938
Oyster harvesters had a banner year in 1911, landing 1.4 million bushels of oysters. But things went downhill from there, as pollution continued to harm the oyster beds. Then in 1938 came the Great New England hurricane, which pretty much wiped out the oyster industry. The devastating hurricane of 1938 dealt a near-fatal blow to Narragansett Bay’s oyster industry. It wiped out shucking houses, shipping wharves and oyster boats. Then World War II came along, depriving the remaining oyster companies of strong backs and willing hands to harvest oysters.
Fortunately for Rhode Island stomachs, the quahog stepped in. Literally. A quahog moves through the mud with a muscular little foot.
ENTER THE QUAHOG
A quahog (pronounced KO-hog) is a large, hard-shelled clam. New Englanders are really the only ones who call them quahogs. Others call them chowder clams.
Though quahogs are native to the Atlantic coast from Prince Edward Island to the Yucatan, they are most abundant from Cape Cod to New Jersey. You’ll find Rhode Island smack in the center of quahog country. Population growth along Narragansett Bay has actually helped the quahog population. Quahogs feed on plankton, and plankton feeds on nitrates, which water treatment plants can’t filter out. One of the nice things about quahogs (in addition to their flavor) is that they filter impurities out of the water.
Quahogs burrow into mud in the intertidal zone and below the tidewaters. Digging them requires a strong back and a stronger work ethic. By 1987, Rhode Island’s Legislature declared the quahog the Rhode Island State Shell.
If you are curious, quahogs found in Rhode Island are a subspecies that can be easily identified by the splash of purple on the inside of the top shell – other quahogs lack this. Rhode Islanders are convinced their quahogs are far superior to others – and they may in fact be right! Quahog shells were in fact used to create ‘wampum’ – Indian money – and that purple splash made the most valuable wampum of all for the Narragansetts!
To make stuffies, a good clean Quahog clamshell is a must – be sure and have your fishmonger clean and save the bottom shells (they’re deeper and hold more stuffing!) from each Quahog for you. The can also do the nasty work of shucking, cleaning and saving the clam juice for you. While it is absolute heresy from a Rhode Island standpoint, you CAN actually make this recipe with canned clams and bottled clam juice. From my standpoint, using top-quality bottled clam juice is a good idea to supplement the Quahog juice from the shell – I only endorse actual Quahogs in the recipe.
I do make several important, gourmet changes to the classic method – all of which are noted in the recipe post below and all of which are strictly optional. I loathe green bell peppers as they are acrid, bitter and cause gas in most people as they are wildly under-ripe. I prefer using fresh green Poblano peppers instead – I do use standard red bell peppers as they are ripe, delicious and don’t cause unnecessary flatulence. I also add in some roasted garlic in addition to regular, and use Aleppo pepper flakes for their more restrained flavor than standard red pepper flakes.
Like any proper Rhode Islander, I do call for some hot sauce in the stuffing mixture – but not Tabasco! I strongly endorse this made-in-Rhode-Island hot sauce in its place – it’s damned good! You’re going to need some classic Portuguese chourico sausage – this is NOT the same as Spanish or Mexican chorizo, and has a totally different flavor profile, so PLEASE DON’T SUBSTITUTE THEM! This provider sells the real deal! You’ll also need some Bell’s Traditional Stuffing – buy it from here. I also add in some fresh chervil and celery leaves (+ parsley) for gourmet flavor which really satisfies!
When making stuffies, be sure you cook them long enough to get the browning effect on the top and crunchy bits around the edges – they really make the stuffies sing! Stuffies are designed to be slightly overwhelming in size – never forget that you MUST mound the stuffies stuffing HIGH for it to be a true Rhode Island stuffie! Lastly, while this is not a traditional seasoning in stuffies, I do love Old Bay seasoning, so do try it (or omit it if you’re a purist) – as you see fit.
My Citizens – Peter Griffin may live in Quahog, but now you can TASTE the true spirit of Rhode Island as elevated by Me and retaining all of its working-man’s classic flavor profile. These are stuffed clams worthy of the Gods themselves – and I hope you see fit to try them without further delay! They serve a hungry crowd and are a true taste of Southern New England for your dinner table or as a party dish!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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