Whither the Clamcake?

Statue of a bullraker at Warwick Public Library. (Photo by Ray Huling)

Earlier this summer, the Warwick Public Library held its first annual Quahoggers Jamboree, a celebration of the quahaugging industry that included displays of quahaugs and quahaugging equipment manned by real live quahauggers, an installation on the history of quahaugging in Rhode Island put together by the Warwick Historical Society, and a performance by The Aristocats, a swing band. It was an unusual event.

The Library boasts a somewhat well-known statue of a bullraker, and the Jamboree served as a way to re-dedicate this monument, as well as to re-introduce Warwickians to the quahauggers in their midst. Lincoln Chafee put up the statue in 1998, during his tenure as Mayor of Warwick, but the installation never had any signage to identify the title of the work, the artist or its purpose until now. Thus, the Jamboree had dual purposes, which brought out the Governor, along with a few quahauggers. And if the Governor was showing up, the current Mayor had to come out, too. The quahaugger, the Governor, the Mayor, and the librarian–the greatest Peter Greenaway film never made and a fine way to pass an evening in June.

All of this made for something of a big deal for quahaugging, and for me. I took great interest in the Jamboree, because it directly contradicted a point I make in my new book, Harvesting the Bay, which gives an account of Rhode Island’s shellfishing industry as sustainable food production from the perspective of a son and grandson of bullrakers. I argue that any sustainable food system is going to be something very much like quahaugging in Narragansett Bay and that people who produce food sustainably are going to be very much like quahauggers–of whom I give a detailed and intimate portrait. Naturally, I offer strong opinions in the book–what other kind are there, when it comes to food in general and quahaugs in particular?–and the Quahoggers Jamboree busted me on one of them.

I’m not a big fan of the statue. Nor of memorials to the industry in general. The Chafees aligned two goals when they advocated for and sponsored the installation: 1) put up a monument emblematic of Warwick; 2) put up a monument in memoriam of Stephanie Chafee’s father, who was a proponent of public art. Quahaugging seemed emblematic of Warwick, and, in spirit and by word of mouth, if not in signage, the work was dedicated to Murray Danforth.

That’s all fine, but doesn’t do all that much for the shellfishery. I see works like this as a way to memorialize a dying trade, rather than support a living one. With a statue or a park, you can admire an object, rather than deal with the person or activity it represents.  Statues connote something gone. Denotes something gone, in the case of Danforth. And for 14 years, from the first dedication of the bullraker statue to the installation of plaques explaining who made it and why just  two weeks before the release of my book, that was just how things worked down at the Library. What timing.

But it’s a real treat to undermine myself with some reporting for RI Future, because of my friendship with Bob and because it’s always fun to write for a publication that falls to one’s right on the political spectrum. Here follows a brief tour of the Quahauggers Jamboree.

Jody King’s boat Black Gold (Photo by Ray Huling)

It started with a boat in the parking lot. Black Gold, Jody King’s boat. Jody’s bullraked for over twenty years now; he’s a big ambassador for the industry and one of the very few black men who work in quahaugs. The Black Gold–named for the monetization of quahaugs through bullraking–is rather large and elabourate for a quahaug skiff: twenty-five feet, a couple of sails, a big console and cabin. It made a good impression, taking up four parking spaces in front of the library. Jody features prominently in one chapter of  my book, and this display was just his style. It also served to announce in a full and unmistakable way that, indeed, quahauggers were on the premises. Perhaps several of them.

Is that why there were cops all over the joint? The Warwick police had really turned out for this one. Five of them? Six? Perhaps they had come to ensure the safety of the Governor and the Mayor, rather than to keep the quahauggers in line. A few cops kept watch over the parking lot from a vantage point just above Jody’s boat. Nearby, anenst the entrance to the Library, stood a couple of food stands, which the police also kept an eye on.

Not really the traditional cuisine of quahaugers. (Photo by Ray Huling)

Poppy’s Gourmet Kettle Korn. Lemon Shake Ups. An ice cream cart. Popcorn and lemonade and ice cream made sense, because the late June heat wave remained in effect and there would be a concert on the lawn later, but the refreshments on offer also brought to mind the thought that something was missing, some special food that would have harmonized well with the theme of the event. I pondered this lack as I looked around.

Across from the thought-provoking food carts, a crowd of people had begun to fill a crescent of folding chairs on the well-shaded lawn, facing a small temporary stage set up just in front of the Library’s West wall. They were settling in pretty good numbers, a few dozen or so at that time and more to come, with an average age of about a hundred. I decided to head inside and check out the quahaugging displays, before taking a look at the garden and statue, which lay down a small paved path.

Just inside the doors stood a couple of pillars pasted with information about and images of the history of shellfishing in Rhode Island, from the Narragansetts to the bullrakers, put together by Felicia Gardella, President of the Warwick Historical Society. A couple of cops, one short, one average height, inspected the kiosk intensely, the shorter one explaining things to the taller. I meant to eavesdrop on them–imagine if this conversation should lead to a guy quitting policing and taking up quahaugging!–but then Owen Kelly yelled at me before I could hear anything.

Owen’s been a bullraker for about thirty years, and he looks it. He sounds like it, too. “Hey hey, Ray! What’s happenin’ brother?!” he bellowed. Owen’s not too tall, stocky, in his mid-fifties, grey-bearded, tanned, weathered, calloused, bright-eyed, often shabbily-dressed. Everything you could want in a fisherman. He was wearing a name tag, as all the quahauggers present were. Not just a sticker with a scrawl of black magic marker on it, but a printed name tag pinned to his shirt: ‘Owen’. What the hell was going on here?

Owen was holding forth on the public enhancement aquaculture project, a shellfish farming program run by the quahauggers themselves and formally an arrangement among the Rhode Island Shellfsiherman’s Association, Roger Williams University, RI DEM, the Department of Health, and who knows how many other organizations and institutions. The project consists of a few quahog cultivation platforms–upwellers–floating in Warwick Cove, relying on dockspace donated by Jack Brewer of Greenwich Bay Marina. The quahauggers take seed quahaugs, so tiny that thousands of them together look like a clump of oatmeal, and grow them in the upwellers to field plant size, about as big as a fingernail. Then they sow them, a few million each year, into the Bay.

Some artifacts of the quahaugging industry. (Photo by Ray Huling)

Virtually all quahaugging in Narragansett Bay is wild harvest, and this is rare in modern America. Most quahaugs in the U.S. now come from aquaculture, especially down South. But Rhode Island’s quahauggers have strongly resisted the privatization of the Bay that large-scale quahaug farming would require. Thus, their aquaculture project produces quahaugs that become available to the public, at large for anyone to catch. There’s no guarantee that the quahauggers who volunteer to cultivate the clams will ever see a return on their investment, which is just how they like it.

They want to expand the project, too, and, so, at the Jamboree, they had a computer set up–an ancient Dell laptop that kept freezing–to play a video they’d made to promote public enhancement aquaculture.

“This is why we started this project right here,” explained Owen to a librarian. “So we can produce clams and put’em out for the general public.” He pointed to a frozen image of the upwellers in operation. “Somebody outta Woonsocket comes down, you can go’n’get clams…we approached the Mayor to see if we could do it down Oaklan’ Beach–this is a public enhancement project–but there’s no money out there…right now, over in Washington State or Oregon, they have this huge public enhancement program that they’ve done…and the dollars that come back to the State is incredible…Now, if the State of Rhode Island or the mayor looked at that and said, ‘wait a minit, we could do that here’…” Owen stopped and spread his hands wide in the universal gesture for ‘fucken a’.

But the State and the cities have already blown their money on other things, I pointed out, which wound Owen up a bit. “Yeah!” he cried. “I mean look at Schilling! C’m’on! C’m’on! I could put hundreds and hundreds o’people t’work! Oh my God!”

After a short rant, Owen turned back to the task of finding someone to unstick the computer. I looked over the rest of the quahuagging stuff. There were a couple of display tables: bullrakes, stale handles, clam rakes, photos, framed articles from the paper, a map of the Bay, and even a culling rack with a pile of honest-to-goodness quahaugs on it. Jody King was tending to them, perhaps partly because he had caught them, as the tag in the rack attested, but mostly so he could explain what they actually were to interested patrons of the Jamboree.

“Now, is that a littleneck?” asked one such person. Jody dug his hands into the quahuags and grabbed up a few small ones. Quahauggers handle their catch in a practised way. You can see them evaluating each quahaug, often unconsciously, measuring it with their hands. It’s like watching an old seamstress touch a swatch of fabric.

“Yup,” said Jody. “These are all littlenecks…that’s a topneck,” he said, holding up a slightly larger quahaug. “And the next one up is called a top…that’s a cherry…and a hog.” He held up the largest quahaug of the bunch. “For chowders.” Speaking of chowder, why isn’t there any?

He paused, pensively. “They should have a big pot of chowder here and serve little tiny cups, dixie cups, three ounce…that’s a good way of doin’ it…pass ‘em around, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to take it off the tray…my wife’s allergic…she’s allergic to all shellfish…how hard is that?!”

Jody stood across from the side door that leads out to the statue. “It’s good they’re finally doin’ somethin’ with it…Owen and I were here when they dedicated it, the first time.’ We went outside to take a look at the statue as the sun set.

‘The Warwick Quahogger, A Day’s Catch’, ‘In Loving Memory of Murray S. Danforth, Jr.’ Read the new plaques. The statue consists of a shellfisherman holding a bullrake in one hand and a bag of quahaugs in the other; beside him sit another bag of quahaugs and a dog wearing a neckerchief; they’re all in a row, on a platform overlooking the shallow pool of a fountain.

“The guy who’s standin’ there’s a plumber,” said Jody, who has a pleasant, stream-of-consciousness conversational style. “The guy who posed for it was a plumber from East Greenwich…but it actually looks like…you’ll know the family…if you look at it from the side…there’s a whole quahauggin’ family…” The Bennetts? No. The Coles? No. The Rayhills? “That’s it! The Rayhills! That’s who it looks like.” Those names are among the most well-known in Rhode Island quahaugging, some of the best quahauggers ever on the Bay, with some of the wildest stories. And that’s what they get: a Rayhill face on the body of a plumber dressed up to look like a quahaugger. “I’m glad they’re finally doin’ somethin’ with it,” said Jody. A few minutes later, the Governor and the Mayor showed up.

Diane Greenwald, the Library’s Director, introduced these other, more conventional dignitaries from the stage set up for the swing band, and, as she did so, she made use of one of the rarest pronunciations of the word ‘quahaug’. “Our event tonight was inspired by our beautiful sculpture of a kwoehoegger,” she said. Fantastic. Usually, one hears either the mostly correct and true ‘kwawhawg’ pronunciation or the mostly false and corrupt and heavily propagandized Massachusetts ‘koehawg’. In Warwick (correct pronunciation ‘warrik’), you can find both ‘kawhawg’ and Director Greenwald’s lovely ‘kwoehoeg’. It was a good moment.

She handed the microphone over to Mayor Avedisian. The Mayor–beefy, energetic, and stuffed into a dark, rumpled suit–thanked Stephanie Chafee for having personally funded the statue and Governor Chaffee for having been a good Mayor of Warwick in his own right. He then explained why quahaugging is so important to the city: “The land that we live on right now, what was originally called Shawhomett, was purchased nearly four hundred years ago with wampum cut from shells of quahaugs”

Which is something of a bizarre point. Quahauggers don’t trade in wampum (more properly, for the purple stuff, ‘suckauhock’), nor does the word ‘purchase’ accurately describe the agreement the Narragansetts made with Samuel Gorton in 1642. The Mayor did mention that Warwick residents do pursue quahuagging as a commercial endeavor aimed at supplying food to people to this very day, but then advanced another strange argument about the prominence of quahaugs in Warwick: “Most everyone who is present here had clamcakes and chowder at Rocky Point at some time.”

Well, that’s true, but only because most everyone present had been born in the late 19th century. The Rocky Point he’s talking about doesn’t exist anymore. The quahaugging particulars the Mayor offered had dust on them. He said nothing special about the trade in quahaugs going on today, about people eating quahaugs now, or even about the unique aquaculture project going on just a couple of miles away under the care of quahauggers almost exclusively from Warwick. His comments lacked precisely the same thing the food offerings did.

Then Governor Chafee took the stage. Slim, wispy, kind of spaced out, dressed in light, office-casual shirt and slacks, the Governor said a few words on how great libraries are, especially the ones in Warwick, and then remarked how tall the trees had gotten since they first installed the statue all those years ago.

Everything in Rhode Island is so fucking strange. Yet, amidst the strangeness, there is always a reasonable voice. The Mayor split. The Governor milled around for a while. The Aristocats–all of whom looked a touch older than the oldest person in the crowd–began to set up their instruments. As I headed back toward the parking lot, I heard one old-timer moan, “How come they don’t have any clamcakes?…they oughtta have clamcakes.” That’s exactly right, but it’s not the easiest thing to do, even in the Ocean State, the last great bastion of wild quahaugging.

“We looked into it,” said Wil Gregersen, the Community Services Librarian, a quite tall, quite thin, reddishly-bearded guy, who arrived from Wisconsin about a year and a half ago. As the librarians started to put together their event, they considered offering some quahaug foodstuffs as part of the Jamboree, but the task proved more difficult than one would expect. “I could not figure out how to do it locally,” said Wil. “The concessions, the band, they’re completely a Warwick thing, and I was trying to figure out who in Warwick serves koehaugs and might be able to come, but the places I contacted don’t travel.”

It’s not his fault, even if he is from Wisconsin. Of course serving clamcakes and chowder is the right thing to do, and, of course, the even better thing to do would be to serve quahaugs caught by the quahauggers working the event. A statue is not the best medium for the aesthetic appreciation of the quahaugger. The clambake is. A feast of quahaugs–that’s the way to celebrate the quahauggers among you.

But it’s illegal for individuals to buy and sell quahaugs to each other. A quahaugger cannot legally sell his catch to his neighbour. A quahaugger can sell only to a shellfish dealer, only a dealer can sell to the public, and to be a dealer one must have premises, one must undergo inspections of said premises, one must have insurance, and so on. Much of these restrictions are necessary in order to have a functioning interstate market in quahaugs, but the system makes things difficult for those who want simply to have a big clambake in Rhode Island.

There are workarounds. Each year, at the Charlestown Seafood Festival, the Shellfisherman’s Association runs a raw bar that dishes up quahaugs, oysters, and steamers to an adoring public. Real live quahauggers shuck and serve the shellfish, which they sell to support the Association. Technically, everything runs through a shellfish dealer, Twin Shellfish, out of Warwick.

You can’t expect librarians to know this or, even if they do know it, to be able to organize a locally-sourced, quahaugger-supplied clambake. Especially if the librarians are not native Rhode Islanders. And I do mean ‘librarians’, plural, here.

Both Wil and Director Greenwald each emphasized the others role in putting together the Jamboree. Wil put together the Jamboree “almost single-handedly” said Greenwald during her brief speech. “It was actually Diane, the Library Director, who had the idea,” said Wil. “She lives in Warwick, she watches the koehauggers from where she lives, she sees them out on the Bay, she sees the boats…so she suggested we should see if we could find some local fishermen.” Diane is from Florida.

The Bullraker (Photo by Ray Huling)

Maybe I wasn’t so wrong in the book when I said that Rhode Islanders often would rather deal with a statue of a bullraker than with bullrakers themselves. But, really, it’s a matter of how Rhode Islanders use their government and their wealth to celebrate the things that draw them together, that establish them as Rhode Islanders. Then-Mayor Chafee wanted to put up a statue; Murray Danforth liked public art; Stephanie Chafee wanted to memorialize her father, she has sixty million bucks, and her husband was the Mayor. That statue was going to happen. But it’s not as if people have money and power for no reason at all. Rhode Islanders gave them that money and power, which is an endorsement of whatever is done with them. The statue really does represent what Rhode Islanders want to do about quahaugging, just as the difficulty of sourcing local quahaugs does.

Yet, there are many strains of thought about quahaugging in the minds of the people who live around Narragansett Bay, and other ideas may take hold in practice. Just as Wil explained why there was no chowder or clamcakes at the Quahoggers Jamboree–and I mean right at that moment; again, incredible timing–a guy came up to him and said, “I see these kwawhawgs in there and they make me hungry!”

“I’m very sorry!” exclaimed Wil. No need to be sorry: the Quahoggers Jamboree was exactly the right thing to do. Making that guy want to eat sweet, succulent, locally-sourced, dug-that-day quahaugs is exactly the right thing. That guy has control over his community’s relationship to its most famous natural resource. Everybody in Rhode Island does. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out what we really want to do with the quahaug.

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