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.
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.. ‘Quahog’ comes from the Narragansett word, ‘poquauhock.’ The Narragansett people had used their shells for wampum. 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.
Nelson Blount claimed credit for making the quahog a Rhode Island staple after the 1938 hurricane, one of the deadliest and most destructive ever to strike New England. His family had an oyster-harvesting-and-shucking business in Barrington, R.I., since the 1880s. It didn’t take much for Blount to realize the storm had wiped out his family business, unless he could find another shellfish to sell.
So Blount began to sell the Narragansett Bay quahog as a tasty alternative to the oyster. Formally known as F. Nelson Blount, he was a terrific salesman. His sales pitch worked.
Rhode Island embraced the hard-shelled bivalve. It made its way into important Rhode Island dishes like stuffies (stuffed clams), clams casino (a version of stuffies) and the controversial tomato-based clam chowder.
Blount did well, too, growing his company into the Blount Seafood Corporation, which sold the clams that went into Campbell’s Soup clam chowder.
By 1987, Rhode Island’s Legislature declared the quahog the Rhode Island State Shell.
Devotees of popular culture will recognize the quahog from the adult cartoon series, Family Guy. The protagonist (you can’t really call him a star) lives in Quahog, R.I., a fictional town modeled on Cranston, R.I.
This story was updated in 2023. Images: Nelson Blount By RickKfoury – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.hp?curid=105312758.