Heading out at low tide with a sturdy rake and a floating basket, and wading through the Vineyard’s shallow waters can provide for good eating. And clamming, for the Vineyarders who love it, is more than just the pursuit of a tasty quahaug supper. A few hours spent plying the clam flats also offer a chance to escape from whatever one must – to explore the mystery of life hiding just below the surface of all that salty water, and to connect with a culturally rich past.

Clamming represents a way of life that endures here more than in most places in contemporary America – living with an abundance of fresh foods (raised by hand or gathered from the wild) from both the land and the sea, and with the knowledge of how to prepare and enjoy them. The Vineyard’s white and purple hard-shelled clams are more than food; they have provided sustenance over many centuries – and the shells have been used as symbols of value and status, as currency and adornment. Wampum jewelry made by Vineyard artisans, some who are members of the Wampanoag Tribe, is still highly prized by locals and tourists alike.

“Quahaugging is just a great way to get out and enjoy being on the water,” says Randy Walpole, who grew up in Edgartown where he still lives and quahaugs in the warmer months of the year. Inspired by his love of cooking and of clamming and fishing – he keeps his father’s 1953 derby-winning fifty-one-pound, eleven-ounce striped bass mounted on the wall over the bar in his home – Randy went to cooking school in Boston in the early seventies, and then returned to the Vineyard both to quahaug commercially and to cook at several Island restaurants.

“That’s the way it was on the Vineyard: You did whatever you had to, to get by. You went clamming. In the fall you went out scalloping, and when the fish were running you went fishing. Either that or you worked on houses or cooked in a restaurant,” Randy says.

“I don’t cook for a living anymore, and I don’t fish or clam commercially now either, but I still love to do both. I haul in more quahaugs and make more stuffers and chowder than I can possibly eat, so I share what I gather and cook with my family and friends. The thing I like about quahaugs is that they’re honest food, something delicious that you want to have with a beer.”

Like Randy, and other quahaug enthusiasts, Cliff Robinson keeps a commercial license, although he mostly clams for himself, his family, and his friends. “We love eating them, cooked or raw, but we always have enough to share with my relatives. And I’ve always got something good to eat in the freezer,” Cliff says. “My wife makes great chowder and stuffed clams.”

Cliff grew up clamming and fishing in Vineyard Haven, but he now lives in Oak Bluffs with his wife and two sons, who are ten and thirteen. “My boys go out quahaugging with me sometimes,” he says. “It’s not just about the food. It’s also about being out on the water, wandering along the shore and enjoying being outdoors. That’s not something I ever get tired of – it’s what the Vineyard is all about.”

Cooking quahaugs

How one goes about preparing quahaugs is sometimes a matter of cultural heritage (whether, for instance, one’s ancestry is Wampanoag, Portuguese, or Boston Brahmin) and even the source of rivalries and competition: Whose spouse cooks the tastiest baked quahaugs is the stuff of classic barroom quarrels, and the never satisfactorily answered question of who makes the best chowder on the Island is cause for cook-offs, long-running family feuds, and annual contests.

The choice of cooking methods also depends on the size of the clams. The smallest quahaugs, called littlenecks, are generally eaten raw on the half shell; and there is some controversy here too, with purists preferring to eat them plain or perhaps with the merest drip of lemon, while some are wild about cocktail sauce. Others prefer stronger toppings, like straight Tabasco.

The next size up, cherrystones, which are roughly between two and three inches in diameter, are equally suitable for eating raw or for cooking with almost any recipe that calls for clams. Cooked in the shell with garlic, parsley, and white wine, cherrystones make a simple and delicious spaghetti sauce. Broiled on the half shell, they become an appetizer, maybe paired with bacon or covered with garlic, herbs, and bread crumbs as in the classic dishes clams casino and clams oreganate.

The larger quahaugs, known as chowders, are tougher and chewier and are best chopped or ground before cooking. Chowders are used to make dishes such as clam fritters, baked stuffed clams (a.k.a. stuffahs), sauce for clam linguine, and, of course, clam chowder.

There are two main questions to answer before making clam chowder. The first is whether to make Manhattan or New England style (a question as controversial as whether to root for the Yankees or Red Sox) and – for those favoring the warm, creamy, local variation – whether to make the chowder thin, thick, or somewhere in between. On one end of the spectrum is a brothy chowder made without thickener and at the other is a paste suitable for wallpapering. The beauty of cooking your own chowder is that you can make it just the way you want.

Quahaug recipes

Raw clams on the half shell with homemade cocktail sauce

To shuck a clam: Hold it firmly in one hand with the bottom, hinged side touching your palm. Insert a clam knife along the top of the clam (use your fingers to apply pressure along the length of the blade) and slide the blade along the inside of the shell to sever the muscle attaching the clam to the shell. Pull the top shell free and discard. Using the knife, check that the clam is completely free from the bottom shell in which it sits, and then top with sauce.

Cocktail sauce

Makes 1 cup

• 3/4 cup ketchup
• 1/4 cup horseradish
• Juice from 1 lemon
• 2 dashes Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce

1. Combine all the ingredients. If you prefer the sauce hotter or tangier, increase the horseradish and hot sauce.

In-the-oven clambake

Serves 4

• 8 small potatoes, scrubbed and halved
• 3 ears corn on the cob, shucked and cut into 4 pieces
• 1 pound linguiça, cut into 2-inch pieces (optional)
• 2 cups chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
• 1 cup white wine
• 1/4 cup chopped parsley
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
• 3 dozen cherrystone clams, rinsed to remove sand from shells

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place all the ingredients (except the clams) in a large covered baking dish and bake for 40 minutes, until the potatoes and corn are soft enough to eat.

3. Add the clams and cook, uncovered, until all the clams are open, about 20 minutes.

4. Serve in soup bowls with crusty bread for dipping in the broth.

Baked stuffed clams appetizer

Serves 6

• 3 cups shucked chowder-sized quahaug meat, chopped – save shells for stuffing
• 1 cup clam juice, reserved while shucking
• 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (preferably homemade from high-quality bread)
• 1/4 pound linguiça, finely chopped (optional)
• 1/4 cup chopped parsley
• 1/2 cup diced onion
• 1 teaspoon minced garlic
• 1 small green pepper, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Fill the empty shells with the stuffing (quahaugs vary in size, so the number that you stuff will depend on the size of the shells and how high you stuff them).

3. Bake the clams for 50 minutes, or until brown on top and hot in the middle. They’re best if they don’t dry out too much.

New England clam chowder

Serves 4

• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 2 ounces salt pork, minced (optional)
• 24 chowder-sized quahaugs (about 4 inches wide), shucked, with the juice reserved (or 1 quart clam meat and 2 cups clam juice)
• 4 cups water
• 4 large potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds), diced
• 1 quart whole milk
• 1 cup heavy cream
• Salt and black pepper to taste
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Optional, for thickening:
• 4 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature
• 4 tablespoons flour

1. In a heavy non-aluminum soup pot, cook onions with salt pork for 7 minutes over med-ium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the clams, reserved clam juice, and water, and cook at a gentle simmer for 40 minutes. Add the potatoes and cook gently for 40 minutes longer.

2. If a thicker chowder is desired, combine the flour and butter into a creamy paste. After the potatoes have been in for 30 minutes, whisk the paste gradually into the chowder over low heat, not boiling.

3. Just before serving, add the milk and cream, and bring almost to a boil (boiling will cause the cream to curdle). Add salt and black pepper to taste (salt may not be required). Garnish each bowl with fresh parsley.