Every place has its native culinary specialties. Buffalo, New York has beef on weck; Cincinnati was five-way chili; New Orleans the Po-boy; North Carolina the pulled pork barbecue sandwich with coleslaw, and on and on and on. Turn on a food channel and there will be some overenthused fat guy on a culinary tour of the backwaters looking for the regional speciality.
Yet what of Cape Cod? What are the classic items that every tourist should seek out? Frankly the place isn’t famous for much — certainly not on the level of a Philly cheesesteak — and even within Massachusetts there are foods that get mixed up with Cape Cod but which aren’t really Cape Cod born. Take the fried clam for example — that’s a North Shore/Essex County speciality born in Essex at Woodman’s where in 1914 Chubby Woodman fried some soft-shelled “steamer” clams in batter at the suggestion of a customer. Sure, one can obsess about the best fried clams and search the Cape for the best examples (personally I used to favor Sandy’s in Buzzards Bay, but crave the ones from The Bite in Menemsha, even if you have to own a hedge fund to afford them).
Clam chowder is pretty Cape Cod, but apparently the dish came down from French-Canada and the word is derived from “chaudière” after the stove the stuff was cooked on in the Maritime Provinces. They serve Legal Seafood’s chowder at Fenway Park — frankly a kind of disgusting thought on a steamy humid day when a guy comes trooping up the stairs in the bleachers hawking what is essentially clam-flavored hot milk thickened with corn starch or flour. No one makes the clam chowder I grew up with, but if you want a sense of it, read Melville’s account of Ishmael’s dinner at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford.
One very Cape Cod dish is Portuguese kale soup, especially around East Falmouth where there is a big population of Cape Verdeans, Azoreans, and other descendants of the Portuguese sailors who settled on the Cape after sailing on New England whalers in the mid-19th century. Take chicken broth, a lot of torn up kale (the miracle food of the paleo-Hipster movement), some kidney beans, diced potatoes, sliced chorizo and you have a bowl of goodness.
If I had to nominate one dish as the official Cape Cod specialty I would have to go with the stuffed quahog, also known as the “Stuffie.”
Take big quahogs — the bigger the better, like ashtray sized monsters — grind up all the meat and clam juice and mix with some sort of bread crumbs, diced onion, celery and whatever feels right, mix into a filling like a turkey stuffing, pack into the open shells and bake until golden brown. The restaurants serve them with a pat of butter, a lemon wedge, and a bottle of tabasco.
Stuffed quahogs are big among Cotuit cooks for bragging rights. My step-sister, mother, aunts, brother-in-law …. everyone has their own take on the stuffie. Green bell peppers? Maybe red pepper flakes? There is no great restaurant stuffed quahog. Most bars that serve them as bar food get premade ones from New Bedford — nasty, very processed pasty things with no big clam chunks. Do not confuse a stuffie with Clams Casino — different thing altogether.
I confess I like a homemade Cotuit stuffed quahog, and even will go with a mass produced ones if I’m at the right bar and want something to go with a beer. My favorite recipe — which is total heresy because it is “gourmet” to some critical palates– is Chris Schlesinger’s “Ultimate Stuffie” from the Back Eddy in Westport. These suckers have ground Portuguese sausage, a ton of sage and oregano, and kernels of corn. I discovered the recipe in The New England Clam Shack Cookbook, (probably one of my most used books on my kitchen bookshelf.)