Ark of Taste
The Northern Quahog is a bivalve marine mollusk that burrows in shallow mud or sand sediment. Its natural range is along the east coast of North America from Prince Edward Island to the Yucatan Peninsula. The quahog has a fairly large, heavy, thick shell with elevated hinges on the narrow end. The color ranges from pale brown to shades of gray white. The ridged shell is covered with growth rings, the interior of the shell is colored a deep purple, and the meat is pink in color. The quahog’s anatomy includes a muscular foot, which assists it when burrowing, and set of long siphons used for respiration, waste elimination, and food gathering. The quahog is a suspension feeder which means that it feeds on small plants and plankton drawn in with the water flow. Reproduction occurs in the Northeast coastal areas in late spring and early summer, when eggs and sperm are sent into the waters; over 24 million eggs are produced during a single spawning.
Historical Info and Preservation Efforts
The name “quahog” is derived from the Narragansett Indian word “popuauhock.” In 1758, Carl Linnaeus gave the quahog its scientific Latin name, which includes the word “mercenaria” because beads of quahog shell were used for currency in 17th century New England. The Narragansett people called these beads wampum, and their lands included vast habitat for quahog. Typically in order to make wampum they harvested the shells in the summer and crafted beads during the winter months. They toiled laboriously to create a quality bead that would demand the highest price when traded, and long distance runners would travel for hundreds of miles to find the best prices for these beads. Native Americans also wore strands of wampum as ornaments and belts on which the purple and white beads were woven into pictorial icons. Settlers arriving in New England sought after the quahog both for its market value to shellfishermen and the rich nutrients it provides.
Overfishing, pollution, and poor conservation practices have all contributed to the decline in quahog population and usage in the United States. In the northern waters of the Atlantic coast, the quahog grows only during the early summer months when water temperatures approach 70 °F. During winter growth ceases altogether and when water temperatures become too warm, spawning, growth, and food availability are limited. Algae blooms have also become a threat, and toxins created by red tide can accumulate in the shellfish and bring reproduction to a halt.
The flavor of the Northern Quahog reflects the unique marine ecosystem they inhabit. Influences like water temperature, salinity, current, season, and harvest method all play a part in flavor. The taste has been described as delicate and luscious, though the meat can become tougher and chewier as they get larger.
Or check out some additional readings
“Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent” by Gary Paul Nabhan “The Northern Quahog” by Michael A. Rice of the University of Rhode Island “Marine Life of the North Atlantic” by Andrew J. Martinez Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education “A History of the NE Fisheries” by Raymond McFarland