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Rhode Island: Energy and Digging for Your Supper

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 15, 2017

The old pot, the steam, the air in savor,
the close room, the precious butter, the
blue fingers throbbing, our bodies in all
the customs of weariness, the supper,
succulent of the freezing dark sea come up,
and hunger, its own happiness, its own
domain immeasurable. It was for the hunger.

The last lines of Frank X. Gaspar’s poem, “Quahogs,” which appeared in New Yorker magazine last year, suggest a savory meal. Imagine a deep, stainless steel kettle, contents bubbling lazily on the stove in the kitchen – natural gas, preferably. In the next room friends seat themselves around a table as the sound of waves tumbling onto the beach pours through doors that open to the Atlantic Ocean.

Download: Energy is Rhode Island

Wait – What the heck’s a “quahog?”

In Rhode Island places like Quonochontaug, Weekapaug and Narragansett, it’s pronounced “co-hogs,” and they’re clams – the stars in a New England staple: clam chowder.  Indeed, ask a Rhode Islander what their state is known for, and there’s a good chance they’ll say “quahogs” (or “coffee milk”). Clamming – the actual foraging for clams in the sand just as the waves retreat from the beach – and eating them is a pastime for both locals and summer visitors. Energy makes it better – both the clamming and the eating.

Rhode Island’s clam chowder simply is a must for travelers to the nation’s smallest state. If you’re asked whether Rhode Island chowder is the red or the white, say neither. It’s a mixture of quahogs, potatoes, onions, butter, clam juice, water and spices – cooked over a natural gas stove indoors or an outdoor cooker at a clambake. It’s the quintessential summer dish in homes and restaurants across the state. For many in the Newport area, it’s the annual Great Chowder Cook-Off in early June that kicks off the season for this delicious treat.

Each year, competing chefs use chafing dishes and wick fuel like diethylene glycol, a chemical derived from ethylene obtained from natural gas or oil, to keep their soups hot on site. They spend hours preparing their clam chowder masterpiece, hoping to win the cash prize and, of course, bragging rights.

Rhode Island Clamming Infographic 2

Energy is an essential part of keeping this chowder tradition alive, but it’s not only the cooking of clams that uses natural gas and oil. Even before these popular shellfish make their way into the pot – or fryer if you prefer clam cakes – quahog fisherman use a variety of tools made from natural gas and petroleum to dig up these tasty morsels.

Feet or Hydraulic Dredges?

Recreational clammers, including seafood-loving locals and high-end chefs, generally use basket rakes to loosen up clams that burrow into the sand on the beach or in small pools left as the ocean recedes. These rakes are similar to the ones used for leaves in the yard, but with a basket attached. This tool often is made from stainless steel, a metal alloy that combines steel with carbon and other elements like chromium. This steel is made from iron ore, and often manufactured using natural gas-fired furnaces.

Some clamming enthusiasts around the country prefer to go with an old-school method instead: treading. In a nutshell, this is shuffling along the bottom by foot, with clammers shoving their toes in the sand to feel for clams. This method was first documented in the 1870s, but probably goes much further back.

Commercial and recreational clammers also use clam rakes in the bays or wire mesh dip nets with stainless steel hoops. Larger scale commercial outfits, however, use hydraulic dredges made of steel that are towed by fishing boats off the shoreline. This trap is dragged along the bottom of the water and usually connected to the boat using a thick nylon made from petroleum.

Many fisherman, no matter what method they are using to dig up clams, wear chest waders. This outfit keeps the digger happy and dry with materials like nylon or neoprene (a synthetic rubber), which are both derived from petroleum. Whether wading into the water or standing on a rocking boat, these wetsuits can come in handy.

Both recreational and commercial clammers also carry clam gauges and must be knowledgeable about the restrictions on shellfish sizes. In Rhode Island, the minimum size for a soft-shelled clam is 2 inches. For a bay quahog, it’s 1 inch and 5 inches for a surf clam. The clam gauge allows fishers to quickly check the size of the clam, throwing back the ones that are still too small. This necessary tool is usually made from plastic, a material produced using natural gas or oil, or aluminum, which uses natural gas to turn bauxite ore into alumina.

Rhode Island Clamming Infographic 1

The State Shell

Adopted as the state shell in 1987, the quahog has a long history with Rhode Island as well as other coastal states. In fact, Native Americans, like the Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island, once used these shells as not only food, but for jewelry and money.

Clams are an important part of Rhode Island’s economy. In 2015, 683,000 pounds of quahogs were landed and sold in Rhode Island, making it essential to the nearly $395 million brought into the state through the seafood industry’s sales and income.

For clammers – whether they’re wading out during low tide with a clam rake or lowering a steel dredge into the deep – natural gas and oil and products are key to a sea harvest that ends in a tasty meal – like Gaspar’s.

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.