My Family Recipe

Digging for My Great-Grandparents' Stuffed Clams, 88 Years After the Depression

July 24, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.


Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Many years ago, long before I entered this world as a wet, shivering ball of anxiety and resentment, my great-grandparents inherited a small cottage on a muddy cove near Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. For a great number of families in New England, I’m sure this wouldn’t be all that remarkable. The cottage wasn’t someplace grand like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. Hell, it wasn’t even on the Cape. Rather, it was on a sandy spit of land in the village of Onset, a seaside community in the town of Wareham.

Onset was once a bona fide summertime destination. It still is for a lot of people in Massachusetts. But while Wareham continues to advertise itself as the “Gateway to Cape Cod,” the slogan doesn’t ring as true as it did 100 years ago. With the construction of the Bourne Bridge in the 1930s, people started bypassing Wareham for the downy sand and awe-inspiring waves of the Outer Cape and places further afield. Most of the grand old Victorian inns and roadside motels in Wareham shuttered decades ago, having long since lost the tourist trade to prettier, more scenic destinations elsewhere along the shore.

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But while the location isn’t especially noteworthy or picturesque, the fact that my great-grandparents owned a cottage at all—and managed to hold on to it for several decades—continues to astound me.

Photo by William Holt

Iona and Leroy “Buster” Lapham were factory people who lived their entire lives in the town of Bridgewater, Mass. She made shoes and he made nails. Iona was the daughter of Danish immigrants named Houlberg, while Buster’s family had been eking out a living in the region since the 1630s.

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Top Comment:
“Work & distance prohibits me from getting to Onset as often as I'd like to be there, but when I go I make a point to eat several stuffed quahogs. It's also such a super regional dish. I didn't grow up in Massachusetts, so I've foisted stuffed quahogs upon every friend I've brought to Onset. And they've all become stuffed quahog fans. Glad this tasty dish is getting recognition. ”
— Landry
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I once asked my grandmother what kinds of things her parents did for fun. “People didn’t have hobbies back then,” she said dismissively. “They worked, and they came home exhausted.” From what I’ve gathered in speaking with family who grew up with the couple, that’s a pretty apt description of them.

In the evenings, Iona would make percolator coffee and sit at the kitchen table knitting or working on some other handicaft, while Buster would smoke Pall Malls and read Zane Grey novels in the den. That was their version of “cutting loose.”

They were those classic, stoical Yankees you probably encountered in a high school reading of Ethan Frome—flinty types with long, dour faces and prohibitions against swearing, spirits, you name it. Never mind the Silver Dollar Rye Whiskey bottles we’re still finding buried out in the backyard.

Thrifty and self-sufficient, Iona and Buster were people who made their own clothes and grew their own vegetables. Buster even raised chinchillas and sold the fur. I’m not sure if that counts as a hobby or a trade, but it paints a clear picture, doesn’t it?

They weren’t people who traveled, except to visit relatives. I’m not sure they ever ventured outside of New England. But when the factories they worked at would shut down for a couple of weeks every summer, they’d pile their six kids in the car and make the trip down to Onset.

The cottage had been built by my great-great-grandfather, Clarence Lapham, in the early 1900s. Clarence was a blacksmith, and in old photographs he’s a fairly imposing figure, with long, powerful arms and a bushy, walrus mustache. Buster was his only child who survived into adolescence, so the cottage eventually passed to him.

It was a simple house with a gambrel roof, built on the shore of a cove and surrounded by marsh. A heavy cast-iron stove provided the only source of heat, while a large farmhouse sink was used by the children as a bathtub. There was an outhouse attached to the shed until they installed a toilet in the 1950s.

Stuffed quahogs, or "stuffies." Photo by Ty Mecham

Among the most vivid memories that my grandmother’s generation has of those trips down to Onset in the 1930s and ‘40s are mornings spent wading out into the water and digging for quahogs in the mud with their bare feet. And perhaps no dish better captures that period and those fleeting summer days than the stuffed quahog.

For most people living outside New England, I imagine that a primer is in order here: The word “quahog” is a kind of regional quirk that traces its origins back to the Narragansett tribe. Northern quahogs are hard-shell clams that live in the muddy bottoms of estuaries along the East Coast. They happen to be especially prevalent along the shoreline of southern New England. The smaller ones are called littlenecks and cherrystones, and they’re the sort of bivalves you can pop right into your mouth raw. But quahogs qua quahogs are the big suckers. They measure over three inches and can weigh as much as a half-pound.

Quahogs are a little tougher and a bit more rubbery than their smaller, more delectable counterparts. Rather than eating them as steamers, you’re better off dicing them up for chowder and clam cakes—or making stuffed quahogs. At the cottage, any shells that weren’t used in this capacity were repurposed as ashtrays. Quahog shells make great ashtrays.

Stuffed quahogs, or “stuffies,” are a toothsome mixture of diced clams, breadcrumbs, and spices baked on the half-shell. They’re a savory delicacy, cheap and filling—one of those Depression-era recipes that stretches basic ingredients to their limits.

There’s nothing gourmet about my great-grandmother’s recipe, which is fairly traditional. But the indispensable ingredient is fried linguiça, a Portuguese smoked sausage that’s as ubiquitous in southeastern Massachusett as hot dogs are almost anywhere else in America. The scores of Portuguese immigrants who came to the region from the Azores and Madeira to work in the fisheries and textile mills transformed the culinary landscape of southern New England, making kale soup and bacalhau as iconic as clam chowder. That linguiça and chourico have long been essential ingredients in the kitchens of non-Portuguese home cooks like my great-grandmother is a testament to that.

In many of the restaurants and bars where I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, you’ll see stuffed quahogs on the menu as a starter, occasionally paired with a hot dog as “the poor man’s surf and turf.” It’s a fitting name, because stuffed quahogs are cheap—as low as a dollar in some places. And obviously they’re even cheaper to make at home if you can just walk outside and dig up the quahogs yourself.

At the cottage, any shells that weren’t used in this capacity were repurposed as ashtrays. Quahog shells make great ashtrays.

Stuffed quahogs are a dish with a sense of place, encompassing what’s unique about southern New England and the people who settled there. They also strike me as somehow representative of my great-grandparents, people who didn’t have much but managed to make do with whatever they had on hand.

You'll find the recipe below, adapted by me. But here are my great-grandmother's handwritten instructions, which are characteristically cryptic and full of weird lapses: Wash and cook quahogs. Save hot broth to soak toast. Drain extra juice. Fry linguiça and break into pieces. Add other ingredients to toast. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. All of her recipes are like this—it's assumed that you already know what you're doing.

Sitting in a cool bar on a hot day, dousing a stuffed quahog with Tabasco sauce, I can almost picture Iona toasting slices of white bread under the broiler of that old cast-iron stove, steaming the quahogs and frying the linguiça on a sweltering summer night in Onset, many years ago.

How far back have you dug for a bite of family history? Tell us about it in comments below.

10 Comments

Erinn S. August 2, 2018
I love this story!
 
Eric K. August 3, 2018
Thanks for reading, Erinn!
 
Landry July 27, 2018
I'm part of a fourth generation of Onset vacationers; my family a cottage on the back beach, with views of sunset cove from the second floor. Work & distance prohibits me from getting to Onset as often as I'd like to be there, but when I go I make a point to eat several stuffed quahogs. <br /><br />It's also such a super regional dish. I didn't grow up in Massachusetts, so I've foisted stuffed quahogs upon every friend I've brought to Onset. And they've all become stuffed quahog fans. Glad this tasty dish is getting recognition.
 
FrugalCat July 25, 2018
Oh how I wish my family had a cottage that got passed down from generation to generation. Closest thing we have is a timeshare my aunt has been trying to unload onto one of the grandchildren.
 
Lisa G. July 25, 2018
What a great story! I live in Rhode Island, so I have grown up with Stuffies my whole life. The one thing I can tell you is everyone stuffie recipe is different, and most are delicious. It just wouldn't be summer here in New England without Stuffies!
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
Lisa, what does your family's stuffie recipe look like?
 
Del July 25, 2018
Growing up, we had many a picnic at the foot of the bridge at Buzzard’s Bay. Stuffed quahogs were a staple in our home, but the recipe was never written down. The generations of parents and grandparents have long since gone, but I still remember that taste from my youth. Now that I live in the South, quahogs will need to be replaced with canned clams, but I CAN get Gaspar’s chourico. I am already drooling!
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
We hope you can recreate those tastes of the past with Will's recipe! Let us know how it goes.
 
joslin July 25, 2018
My Mom's, from Wickford, RI, only had bacon because "that's what they had"!!
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
"Only had bacon" sounds great to me.