By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The versatile quahog is a staple and icon of Rhode Island seafood. Unfortunately for shell fishermen, many of those delicacies such as chowder and clam cakes are almost exclusively enjoyed during the summer. But, the hard-shell mollusks are abundant year-round in Narragansett Bay, as more than 27 million quahogs were harvested from state waters last year.
But demand and prices plummet in the offseason, diminishing the income of quahog harvesters and distributors. To extend the quahog-eating season, the Rhode Island Seafood Marketing Collaborative launched Quahog Week, a marketing campaign and series of events to raise awareness and appetites for foods prepared with quahogs. Fishermen, restaurateurs and seafood advocates joined in a kickoff event March 21 at Save The Bay headquarters to praise the quahogs’ influence on local food, culture and history.
Chefs from across the state offered tastings of quahog appetizers such as quahogs casino, quahogs on the half shell and a quahog ceviche.
“It’s surprisingly versatile,” said chef and restaurant owner Massimiliano Mariotta. “It costs nothing and it’s an underrated product.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and shellfish harvester Sarah Schumann spoke of quahog-influenced memories from their youth.
“It’s the flavor of your grandmother’s chowder or the smell of seaweed steaming on hot rocks at the community clambake,” Schumann said.
Schumann documented her experiences, along with the state’s successes and struggles with shellfishing, in her recently published book “Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage.”
Quahogs are excellent filter feeders that help clean the water. But they have long been unable to keep up with the pollution in Narragansett Bay. Thanks to new sewage and stormwater controls, the oyster and quahog trades are improving.
“The evolution of our state is inseparable from the history of our estuarine waters and the shellfish they produce,” Schumann said.
Quahogger Mike McGiveney of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association explained how he dropped out of college to pursue his passion for shellfishing. Along the way, he learned of grandparents and other distant relatives who made their living shellfishing from the Rhode Island the waterfront, such as at Scalloptown Park on Greenwich Bay.
“Before we called ourselves Rhode Islanders, quahogs were here,” McGiveney said.