1950s Archive

Quahaugs and Uncle Quentin

Originally Published April 1951

I can never think of one but I think of the other. As sure as my Uncle Quentin conies into my mind, quahaugs come, too. Whenever, to this day, I roll out the living, trembling, tawny mollusk from his pearly shell, splashed with purple dabs and edged with tiny crenulations, and lip back my head to take the tender creature down, my stout Uncle Quentin comes rolling back across the years, plump and tawny as ever he was in my boyhood. My uncle was shaped, as well as colored, like the quahaug. The quahaug was his first and only real love. He lived on the shellfish mainly, when I knew him. I believe they had much to do with his colors and his contours.

Maybe I ought to explain the quahaug before I explain my Uncle Quentin. Only I and a few surviving Indians know how to spell the word. I once won a spelling match on it in upstate New York, when I was hard-pressed and my wife fed me a word that she knew no one else had ever heard of.

Quahaug is the old Abenaki Indian name for the F.F.V.'s among all the mollusks. Clams to you, but you are wrong. The quahaug is the round, fat bivalve, spiraled about with concentric grooves, that beds and woos and lives and dies an early death in the outer, softer tidal mud of the eastern Atlantic. He is hunted at low tide with an iron hoe with curving tines, and you wear sneakers and little else. His hole is a small one, unlike the hole of the true clam that beds higher up in the mud and shoots jets of diamonds to let you know where he is. It takes a sleuth and an artist to find the quahaug. Sometimes he gives himself away by a faint stir of water, thinking you are the flood tide returning, but usually he keeps so quiet that he can be located only by instinct. He is found generally with another, and I suspect he is monogamous and very faithful to his wife. In all my experience I have never found a triangular setup in the housekeeping of quahaugs.

New Yorkers and Rhode Islanders call the quahaug, quite improperly, by his oval cousin's name, the clam, and Rhode Islanders and New Yorkers cook the quahaug up for chowders. Chopped up and cooked in a chowder, the quahaug becomes sorry shreds of meal about as hard as hard rubber, all his taste leaves him, and he becomes as inedible as barbed wire. No wonder the New York Staters and southern New Englanders put a lot of vegetables in with the ruins of their quahaugs—to cover up the murder that has been done. They need to put a lot of vegetables in, for there is nothing left of the shellfish. Rhode Island clam chowder is a pure vegetable soup. But in the interests of semantics and humanity, they ought by rights to strain the pieces of quahaugs out and throw them away, to give their vegetables more flavor room.

Quahaugs are to be eaten raw or cooked in the manner and at the lightning speed that my Uncle Quentin was master of. A well-cooked quahaug is a plain calamity.

City gourmets know and love the quahaug as the littleneck clam or the cherrystone, and they eat him as they would an oyster, in his own juice, on the halfshell. The only catch is that the quahaug in the city loses his flavor in a geometrical progression each minute he is away from the sea. By the time he comes to the city table, he may be days or weeks old and worn down by homesickness to a pale ghost of himself. The quahaug's notorious and tough ability to keep alive in his thick shell plays right into the hands of his loss of flavor in captivity.

No, Uncle Quentin ate the quahaug properly. Free—by the open sea. He sat on his broadside under the snowing gulls by the broad Atlantic, at utter case, and opened the shell-on which amateurs use dynamite of scalding steam—delicately, with the merest flick and turn of his jackknife blade. He scooped out the astounded creature, tossed him quivering under the awning of his wide red moustache, and swallowed him down alive, tipping the delectable juice of him out of the lower shell down his throat. His moustache quivered twice with ecstasy, his blue eyes turned a deeper blue, and Uncle Quentin sighed and reached for another plump mate to the quahaug that had mellowed him so.

Uncle Quentin reached for many, many mates to that first quahaug. He sat with a basket of the dripping shellfish before him. He shelled them out steadily under the sun of summer, and the lovely, pearl-lined butterflies of empty shells rose up around him till the whole shore shone with them, till the twin-hinged shells rose to my Uncle Quentin's knees, till the Atlantic rose to his broad base on the rockweed ledge he sat on and gradually cooled my Uncle Quentin's ecstasy.

A peck of quahaugs was the absolute minimum of my Uncle Quentin when I went quahauging with him in his sixteen-stone-ten-pound prime. I was always commanded to dig two pecks, as a margin of safety and as reserves.

Uncle Quentin gave me the commands from his ledge of rockweed. He bellowed out against the gale, and his massy Masonic watch charm trembled and twinkled with excitement in the sun on the bulge of bis rotund vest. He told me just where to dig. It was always at dead-low tide, and I was barefooted. I went with my quahaug hook and basket just where Uncle Quentin knew his quarry sojourned. In his younger, slimmer days my uncle had learned the quahaugs' habits. They bedded in the deep ooze, exposed only for a few minutes at the ebb tide's lowest edge. They had square holes above them in the mud, but only the inexpert looked for these; the experts knew the proper, slightly gravelly oases by intuition and by the soles of their feet. Uncle Quentin checked on my success by the seat of my breeches. If I was seat up most of the time, he knew I was getting them. One swoop, and the obese black beauty was tail up, and I basketed him. I saved only the medium-sized quahaugs—the width of my boy's fist was the gauge. The ones the size of Uncle Quentin's fist were too old and tough for his delicate taste. Those could go to Rhode Island for the massacre called clam chowder. When Uncle Quentin was hot on the scent, under his bellows I could get my two peck baskets full in about twenty minutes. The coming tide was often slapping my muddied seat as I heaped my baskets. Then I rocked the quahaugs clean as blue slate in the flooding tide and came ashore to my uncle.

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