By Phineas J. Stone
It had to be at least 3 a.m. when the phone rang.
I answered in a fog, wholly irritated that someone would phone at such an hour.
“You gotta get out here to Revere,” said the person on the other line. “Low tide’s in an hour. The Quahogs are going to be all over. If we don’t get there this morning, the Italians will get them all for Christmas Eve.”
That was all he needed to say.
That all was just the beginning of a very special Christmas Dinner some 20 or more years ago that I still remember fondly. Hams and chickens have come and gone, but the Christmas Quahogs will retain a special place in my memory.
A major storm had ravaged the region the previous day, some time around Dec. 22, and that morning the calm had set in. The ocean had been tossed and turned for two days like a mixing bowl full of water in the hands of a running child. Now, though, things had calmed down and the first low tide after the storm was about to hit.
Most would wonder why anyone cares about such things.
Those people haven’t had New England Quahogs fresh after a violent churning of the Atlantic – whether they be stuffed, made into chowder or sautéed into a pasta. There’s a special taste that comes from Quahogs in New England when one gathers them up by hand one at a time; it’s the taste of the sea that mysteriously disappears once they’re served up in a restaurant or at a food stand down Faneuil Hall. I don’t know where the fresh sea taste disappears to, but I can vouch for the fact that nothing retains the flavor in anything I’ve had that I didn’t gather up myself.
On that morning, my good buddy all the way out in Revere had me in mind.
I had done him a favor earlier that summer, confiscating a boat motor from a guy that owed me some money and had no cash to repay the debt. Knowing that one day my buddy in Revere would think of me when it mattered – and knowing he was always in the market for a new boat motor – I told the guy he could just give me his boat motor and call it even.
The old outboard worked wonders for my Revere friend all summer long, and that cold December morning – my consideration was coming full circle. And though that culture is slowly getting lost in the bright lights, it’s how things work in Boston for guys who tinker around with boats, cars and personal favors.
Years of experience has no replacement when it comes to being ready, and my Revere buddy knew that after a big storm, the first low-tide was going to unveil a glorious haul of Sea Clams and Quahogs freshly churned up from the untapped depths of the Atlantic.
Because of the timing, though, we were up against it.
Italians have a custom on Christmas Eve of serving the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which means they prepare seven types of fish and shellfish to gorge on at Christmas Eve dinner – when they traditionally celebrate the Yuletide holiday. On most days, they wouldn’t bother hitting the beach to get the clams, but with Christmas Eve one day away – we were likely going to be competing with them for the best of the lot. That’s why the early call came in; already my buddy said his neighbors in Revere were talking about grabbing some clams down the Beach for the “Fishes Dinner.”
Naturally, one also had to avoid the Environmental Police, as – believe it or not – it’s illegal to pick up clams on the Beach to eat. At that hour, it was likely going to be way too early for a State employee to be out there, especially back in those days.
So it was, I made the quick drive out there with my six, five-gallon buckets. Dressed in wading boots and rubber gloves, my friend was waiting anxiously; pacing the seawall and imploring me to “hurry, hurry, hurry.”
Men who depend on the sea for food are always impatient.
As the tide receded from the Beach, hundreds of Quahogs emerged on top of the sand. We had beaten everyone to the waterfront. Without saying a word, we went to work. After generating a hefty sweat and filling 10 or more buckets with the freshest clams anyone had ever seen – we turned to one another and smiled. The operation had taken no longer than 30 minutes and the sun still hadn’t fully emerged.
My buddy also was quietly famous for his homemade red wine. Back at his house, he uncorked a bottle that had been sitting in the basement for a year, and we toasted to a tremendous Christmas Dinner that was to come.
I left by 5:45 a.m., and upon arriving at home, our family was overjoyed. My wife cancelled her order for a Christmas ham and we set to work shucking. The supper table on Dec. 25 boasted stuffed clams, homemade clam chowder, minced clam cakes and a heaping bowl of pasta with clams and store-bought shrimp.
On that Christmas Dinner, the food had come straight from the hand of God, right from the belly of the Earth. So it was, when we said grace on that holiday, we knew who to thank.