Quahogs are another name for hard-shell clams. Like soft-shell clams, oysters, scallops, and mussels, they are classified as bivalve mollusks because they have hinged shells made up of two halves, or “valves.” Bivalves obtain their food by “filter feeding.”
Commercial categories (in order of increasing size) include seed clams, beans, buttons, littlenecks, topnecks, cherrystones, and chowders. Other names are based on a quahog’s size. Little necks (or “necks”) are the smallest legal size, measuring 1 inch thick at the largest thickness; chowders are the largest size; and cherrystones are in between.
Although quahogs can be found along the North American Atlantic coast from Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence to Florida, they are particularly abundant between Cape Cod and New Jersey. Farther north, most waters are too cold for quahogs, restricting them to just a few relatively warm coves; while to the south, quahogs have more predators, such as blue crabs.
Rhode Island, situated right in the middle of “quahog country,” has supplied a quarter of the nation’s total annual commercial quahog catch. In 1987, the humble quahog was elevated to the status of Rhode Island’s official state shell.
In Rhode Island, quahogs grow to legal size in 3 to 4 years if conditions are good. A quahog’s age can be determined by counting the growth rings on its shell. As quahogs get older, they grow more slowly, so the growth rings get very close together and difficult to count accurately. Researchers estimate that the largest quahogs (4 inches or more in length) are as much as 40 years old.
20 small quahogs provide a significant number of nutrients: close to 100% of the RDI of Protein, 70% of Vitamin C, 22% of Vitamin A. They also provide a substantial amount of our RDI of B Vitamins - B12, Riboflavin and Niacin. In addition, 20 small quahogs provide close to 300% of our daily recommended intake of iron! (Keep in mind that it’s hard to overdose on a vitamin or mineral if you are obtaining it from a food source.)
Quahogs are found in the top 3 inches of sandy or sand-and-mud bottoms, usually below the low-tide line. It’s easier to dig for them at low tide.
Digging your own quahogs requires little or no equipment. One popular method is “treading”: Simply probe the bottom with your foot until you feel a quahog, then reach down and pull it up with your hand. Alternatively, you may use a hand rake (available at hardware stores). A clam rake resembles a garden rake, but the tines are longer and the handle is shorter. Drag the rake through the bottom until you feel a scraping, then push the rake in deeper and pull it toward you and upwards to harvest the quahogs. Be sure to wear old shoes or sneakers to protect your feet.
Once you get the quahogs home, rinse them in cold water to remove sand and discard any that have opened (they are either dead or dying). They will keep up to a week in the refrigerator if they are unopened and laid on their sides.
Shucking (opening) quahogs can be frustrating, especially for the novice. Clams “relax” and become much easier to open if they are chilled, on ice or in the refrigerator, for several hours. To open a clam, hold it in your left hand (if you are right-handed) and use your right hand to work a special shucking knife (available at the housewares departments of most stores, or at many fish stores) into the space between the shells. As soon as the knife penetrates, slide it along the inside of one shell to cut the two adductor muscles). Open the clam and detach the meat by cutting the other side of the adductor muscle. The quahog is now ready to be served on the half shell, used in recipes, or frozen for later use. Quahogs make excellent chowder, clam cakes, stuffed clams, and clam sauce for pasta. However, they are too tough to make good steamed or fried clams.
A LITTLE HISTORICAL TIDBIT
Drilled shell pieces were historically produced as wampum beads by Native Americans in the eastern United States. Wampum beads were used within tribes for gifts, exchange, and ornaments but not as money; wampum served as currency, however, for European settlers in the original thirteen colonies as late as 1701.