November 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm

The Fame of the Rhode Island Stuffie

After basking in the July sun on a Newport, Rhode Island beach, writer Glen Ilacqua craved seafood. Most of all, he craved cheap seafood. At a popular local lobster shack, he found a $21 lobster roll and an $18 plate of fried clams—delicious options not in his price range. Then on the menu, he spotted “stuffies,” the answer to his penny-pinching prayers: “A few stuffies and a beer are tasty, filling and can get you your seafood fix for about ten bucks.”

(Credit: Oliver Scott Snure)

(Credit: Oliver Scott Snure)

Ilacqua wrote this account in summer 2011, but stuffies have symbolized the “cheaper seafood option” in Rhode Island since they first emerged as tasty, filling, and low-priced meals in home kitchens during the economically-turbulent 1930s. Initially concocted to make use of inexpensive and readily-available ingredients—clams and bread—the stuffie still signifies the frugal alternatives to pricey seafood dishes, as demonstrated by Ilacqua’s recent experience, and accordingly, helps construct Rhode Island’s identity of resourcefulness and self-reliance, extending back to the state’s Narragansett roots.

Similar to stuffed clams found all throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the Rhode Island stuffie starts with the quahog (most often pronounced KO-hog), a large hard-shell clam harvested in the state’s Narragansett Bay. Traditional recipes instruct to shuck the quahog; mix the clam meat with bread, spices, and chopped onion and celery; bake the stuffing in the shell; and then top with hot sauce and lemon juice.Although a simple dish, no “authentic” Rhode Island experience is complete without eating one. The state boasts diverse food options, from Portuguese and Italian to Mexican and just regular old burgers, but the stuffie reigns supreme as one of the culinary specialties.

boat roberto trm

(Credit: Roberto Trm)

As a cultural representation that speaks to Rhode Island’s economical past and labor history, the stuffie reinforces the image of hardworking, self-sufficient New Englanders. Particularly in opposition to the image of the expensive, lavish Maine lobster, the stuffie serves to classify Rhode Island as the region’s leader of frugality, resourcefulness, and creativity. This image is produced through the stories of the Narragansett people who first skillfully utilized quahog shells as goods; through the poor families who first developed stuffie recipes as a means to make use of prevalent and inexpensive ingredients; and through the $1 billion-a-year tourism industry that advertises the stuffie as “authentic Rhode Island” to allure visitors.

But first, a brief look at the stuffie’s source, the quahog, whose highest population is found in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. The word “quahog” derives from the Narragansett people’s “poquauhock,” meaning hard clam; its scientific name, Mercenaria mercenaria, is Latin for “wages” and refers to the Native American use of quahog shells for wampum beads, their standard currency. Thus, the Narragansett people did not harvest quahogs just for food purposes, but for other economical applications like creating money. These beads were also woven into belts using sinew or thongs featuring patterns that helped people remember the details of stories; family histories, treaties, and wars were recorded and commemorated in this way. Wampum jewelry, made from the purple-hued pieces of the inside of quahog shells, is still popular today and can be found at craft fairs and gift shops all over the state.

Rhode Island experienced its economic and industrial peak during the textile mill era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It became one of the most industrialized states with its additional machine tool, silverware, and jewelry industries. As happened in other mills across New England, production began to move south where cotton proved cheaper and more prevalent. Most Rhode Island factories closed by the end of the 19th century; a few decades later, the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression exacerbated an already volatile economic environment.

(Credit: Matt Hintsa)

(Credit: Matt Hintsa)

In the midst of this financial crisis, Rhode Island families searched for ways to stretch budgets and continue to provide hearty meals for farmers, fishermen, and other long-day laborers.As it turned out, all they really needed were their hands, a clam rake, a bucket, and a can-do attitude. Narragansett Bay provides ideal water temperatures for large growth of quahogs, and Rhode Island, situated right in the middle of “quahog country,” has consistently supplied a quarter of the U.S.’s total annual commercial quahog catch. Unlike other smaller clams, though, quahogs are oversized and unchewable, so Rhode Islanders explored ways to make use of such an abundant and essentially-free food source. In home kitchens, families removed the meat from the giant shells and mixed it with leftover or even stale bread, and sometimes other ingredients like Portuguese sausage, to make a more edible, more filling, and above all, more long-lasting meal—the stuffie.

Thus, the toughness of the clam was thwarted by the toughness of the people’s spirit, a key aspect of the image the stuffie helps to construct. The stuffie represents the Great Depression-era Rhode Island family’s ambitious attitude and ability to demonstrate culinary and financial creativity, as they economically utilized inexpensive ingredients, experimented with inventive food choices, and produced cheap recipes to enliven unappealing foods. In the absence of good-paying jobs, or any jobs for that matter, families employed strategies to feed themselves by incorporating low-cost and even free foods into their diets. With hundreds of thousands of quahogs growing in the easily accessible Narragansett Bay, families only needed their hands, rakes, and buckets to collect the main stuffie ingredient. In this way, the image of the stuffie is produced through these resourceful families’ stories and initiatives; the stuffie’s creation helps mark key components of Rhode Island’s constructed identity—self-sufficiency (using one’s own hands), independence (not relying on outside sources), and frugality (making use of inexpensive and readily available ingredients). Just as the quahog serves to shape the state’s identity through its connection to the Narragansett people, the development of the stuffie serves as a cultural representation in relation to the state’s economic history.

Decades later, the stuffie still embodies the “cheaper seafood option” and now also helps to construct Rhode Island’s identity in opposition to the image of more expensive New England fare, like Maine lobster. The producer of this image is the tourism industry, which has used the stuffie to represent Rhode Island’s frugality and resourcefulness; paradoxically, their ultimate goal is to draw visitors to the state to spend money and to stimulate the economy. In addition to Rhode Island residents eating stuffies at clam bakes, summer harvest festivals, clam shacks, and in their own kitchens, out-of-state visitors consume the legendary dish all year long. Nearly 40 percent of Rhode Island restaurant revenue can be attributed to visitors, and according to a 2006 study, food accounts for the largest share of tourism expenditures, over entertainment, shopping, and accommodation. One out of every 10 Rhode Islanders also owes his/her job to tourism, a $1 billion-a-year industry.

The tourism industry utilizes the state’s connection to its Narragansett past, specifically through the image of the quahog. One of Rhode Island’s main tourism websites, VisitRI.com, states, “Unique foods like quahogs, johnny cakes, and cabinets make Rhode Island an ideal destination for adventurous eaters and lovers of culinary Americana.” This statement attempts to differentiate Rhode Island from other destinations that don’t provide such inventive eating options. It illustrates how Rhode Island claims its cultural difference in opposition to other regions by essentially stating, “We’re unique, so come visit our state for an authentic culinary experience.” In this way, the tourism website acts as a cultural constructer of Rhode Island’s creative identity, because on a deeper level, the quahog represents the resourceful practices of the Narragansett people; that tangible tie to the region’s roots helps construct the “authenticity” of the quahog. Because it has been harvested for centuries, the quahog helps create the image of “true” Rhode Island; the cultural producers can verify and celebrate the history of how the Narragansett people ate and used quahogs. Just as visitors to living history museums like Plimoth Plantation experience the “everyday life” of the Wampanoag people, so too does the quahog serve as a vehicle for Rhode Island tourists to transport themselves to the past by eating the clam just as the Narragansett people did and by purchasing the Native’s wampum jewelry.

Also on the “Classic Foods of Rhode Island” web page, the quahog is defined as “mighty” and the “unofficial seafood of distinction.” The rest of the description reads:

“Quahogs can be served raw, steamed, fried, or in chowder, and most famously, in the form of a stuffie, in which the meat of the clam is mixed with bread or cornmeal stuffing and spices and then baked in its shell. Add hot sauce and lemon juice and you’ve got yourself an authentic Rhode Island stuffie, a dish you won’t easily find anywhere else.”

The image of the stuffie representing “vintage” and “authentic” Rhode Island has also been produced through other websites and publications. For example, a headline in the Ottawa Citizen on September 3, 2011, reads, “Stuffies, gaggers, cabinets? We’re talking vintage Rhode Island cuisine.A July 2009 CBN News article deems the “humble stuffie” part of the “perfect Rhode Island meal,” and the well-known recipe website Food.com labels the dish as the “Rhode Island Stuffie,” solidifying its official role in constructing the state’s identity—the stuffie is Rhode Island and no other state can claim it. In the headlines and website text, words and phrases like “vintage,” “perfect,” “classic,” “distinction,” “authentic,” and “you won’t easily find anywhere else” collectively frame and suggest Rhode Island’s cultural distinctiveness and its difference from other destinations. Tourism professionals, as cultural producers, utilize the prevalence of the unique quahog and stuffie to differentiate the state from others that don’t offer such original, authentic culinary options—particularly foods that boast tangible ties to the state’s economic history. Because tourism provides significant revenue to the state’s economy, these cultural producers use persuasive language and take advantage of the stuffie’s popularity to construct Rhode Island’s “authentic” identity. If it weren’t for the Narragansett people’s multiple uses of the quahog and the creative culinary experimentation of working-class families, tourism professionals wouldn’t have such a unique promotional tool to sell the “authenticity” of these foods. Using the images conjured by the quahog and stuffie—working hard, using one’s hands, self-reliance, frugality—tourism websites can say, “Come to our state, where we offer an authentic food experience” in opposition to other states or regions who may offer only common, unexceptional food options not tied to any stories of perseverance and resourcefulness.

Beneath the persuasive headlines and websites, the stuffie primarily serves as a cultural representation of Rhode Island’s long and varied economic history. Since it stemmed from the Narragansett people’s multiple uses of the quahog and ultimately transpired in working-class kitchens during the Great Depression, the stuffie helps Rhode Island establish a cultural identity in relation to its past; in turn, the tourism industry’s use of these images helps construct the state’s identity in opposition to other states and regions. In a state where the unemployment rate currently hovers around 9%, families are most certainly looking to stretch their dollars once again, and the stuffie will continue to shape Rhode Island’s frugal, resourceful, and self-reliant identity. Just as the image has been constructed through the inventiveness of the Narragansett people and creativity of working-class families, so too will the tourism industry continue to sell the stuffie as the “authentic” Rhode Island experience.

-Cassandra Kane