1 Paragon Park and the Great Quahog Hunt, a foodie is born
The first time I gathered ingredients to make something truly delicious I was seven. I was with Dad on Nantasket Beach collecting Quahogs. It was after one of those intense storms that made its way up from the Southern States and onto the North-East shores freeing thousands of crustaceans from under the sea scattering New England beaches with a variety of clams, seaweed and the occasional dead lobster and fish. Early in the morning Dad and I took the thirty minute ride to Nantasket Beach, located in Hull, Massachusetts, a sleepy blue-collar beach town with a spanning coastline and weather-beaten Victorian homes that were once Inns. Toward the north of Nantasket Beach was the sky line of Boston and toward the south a rocky coast line that followed into Cohasset Bay and into Scituate Harbor and onto Plymouth all the magnificent beaches of Cape Cod.
The storm that hit the east coast that summer was one of those completely awesome ones. Bolts of lightning illuminated our house on Franklin Street and explosions of deafening thunder made everyone jump. Rain fell in sweeping gusts and the scent of grass imbued the air while fierce winds blew and rattled are back screened door. My three sisters were scared of storms, but not me. Yes, I was scared of many things when I was a child, I was thin and frail, worrisome, overly inquisitive and crazily obsessive, but rain storms filled me with joy and indulgence. During most storms I’d sit on our front porch and watch the rain fall and steam rise from the black tar on Franklin Street. Sometimes when I wasn’t under my mother’s watchful eye, I’d run out into the rain and do a silly jig around the red and pink impatiens Mom planted in our front yard that she bought in the “greenhouse” over at Almquist Flowerland across the street from our house. My sisters giggled and watched me from the living room windows and more than likely I looked like a wet scrawny chicken waiting to be plucked. When caught I’d get scolded by Mom who warned me repeatedly how dangerous lightning could be. I was not afraid. I had other things on my mind, things like food. I have always believed a good storm whether it be rain, snow or hail is the perfect time to clean out the cupboard and invent something fun and good to eat, well, I find anytime the right time to create something good to eat, but a good hearty storm when I was a child, made creating and eating all that more enchanting because it brought Mom, Dad, my older brother and three sisters together while we all waited out the storm. It was a chance to reconnect before we all went off to our separate lives.
Way before any of my siblings could cook Mom was the lone cook during storms, she’d make her fragrant chicken soup, stuffed tomatoes or busily cut summer squash, sweet onions and potatoes for the Italian vegetable stew Giambotta. The house would smell like olive oil, tomato sauce, fresh basil and garlic. Sometimes she’d roll and cut fresh pasta with the rolling-pin and pasta board grandfather made her when she was first married. My siblings and I would help Mom unravel the pasta strands and hang them to dry. Mom made homemade brownies with Baker’s Chocolate, melting it with butter over a double boiler and I would always burn myself by sticking my fingers inside the hot-pot. We’d all wait for the food while playing cards or Monopoly and listen to the rain fall or snow reports. We’d fight, cry, scream, laugh, tell jokes, tease and tackle each other but when food was served we indulged wildly. When my siblings and I became teenagers we all got involved in the merriment of cooking during a storm, but once I developed my culinary skills while a student at Johnson & Wales University I ran the kitchen, giving Mom a much deserved break. I’d make beef stews, meat loafs, breads, pizza, roasted chickens, Swedish meat balls, cookies, cakes and this type of good wholesome food was all standard fair in my house as young boy. I learned to cook from my mother, father, grandparents and watching Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, better known as Graham Kerr on PBS, but it all really started on that wondrous post storm-day on Nantasket Beach, home of Paragon Park where most of my earliest food memories began.
The town of Hull hosted across from Nantasket Beach the regionally famous Paragon Park, built I think in 1907, and its equally celebrated, World’s Biggest Roller Coaster, called “the comet” built in 1917, from all spots on the beach the coaster’s highest peak could be seen kissing the sky. Back in those days during the summer months one could hear the distant rattling of the roller coaster carts as they made their way, with great effort, to the tippy top, soon proceeded by the screams of terrified riders as the carts made its deep and frightful decent. Riding the Roller Coaster was a rite of passage for most of us who lived on the South Shore. I was 12 my first and last time on that old, dilapidated thing, that coaster scared the wits out of me because the entire monstrosity swayed in the wind. On the memorable day when the cart I sat in descended that massive horrifying incline, the sounds of my blood curdling screech, I am sure, reverberated all over the South Shore for I was convinced I was going to be dumped out of the cart and be thrown into the Fried Dough concession stand below the old tracks, which honestly I wouldn’t have minded, anything was better than that frightful post-traumatic inducing roller coaster ride and on second thought, what better way to die than alongside yeasty frying dough that was in the shape of large saucers that would eventually be covered in powdered sugar?
Paragon Park was truly a magical place where I had all my initial childhood treats. I had my first taste of cotton candy there and was totally amazed, it didn’t seem real to me, this puffy, sugary thing on a paper cone that dissolved in my mouth, had I died and gone to heaven? After all, my mother told me I was eating a sweet cloud. I had gobs of it in my hair and on my clothes and caked around my lips. Mom took an ice-cube from her Pepsi and wet a napkin and cleaned my face. And of course there was the Salt water Taffy made by a huge twirling contraption in front of a large picture window, if my mother didn’t pull me away I would still be there watching that hefty man with a mustache hooking batch after batch of warm sweet-smelling taffy onto that strange-looking twirling contraption. And of course there was the fudge store! I was in wonderment of the workers and how they briskly cut pans of fudge with paint scrapers and piled the soft dense fudge pieces like mini-pyramids inside the showcases and I loved the way the fudge was placed into small white boxes. I loved the butterscotch fudge the best, well, truth is, I loved all the fudge at Paragon Park, how could I pick one over the other? And there were piles of popcorn balls, shelves of bright and slick red candied apples, steamed hot dogs and endless buckets of buttered popcorn that made my chin buttery and slick ending with more ice cubed soaked napkins swiped across my face. The best part though, were the hodgepodge of smells that emanated all around Paragon Park, they were strong and powerful, some sweet, others rich and savory and they would confuse your senses; one second you wanted fried clams, another second you had to have a greasy-dripping cheeseburger and you just had to have those crispy French fries and then there was the sweet candy coated peanuts and who in their right mind could resist the fried dough or the spicy Italian sausages with peppers and onions? But no trip to Paragon Park would be complete without the heavy scent of marijuana looming in the air over by the three-story-high baby-blue slide teenagers sped down on while sitting on burlap bags.
Those nights at Paragon always ended with Ice Cream. I ate mounds of it when I was kid with jimmies and rolled in nuts and still to this day when I eat a bowl full of Peppermint Stick ice cream memories flood my mind and I am five years old again sitting on a bench next to the Tilt-a-Whirl and lights are flashing, tantalizing smells are coming my way and carousel music is playing.
After the storm that year, Nantasket beach was spotted with enormous Quahogs that washed ashore. The tide was way out, the shoreline was sprawling endlessly and the sand was shiny wet and reflected the low hanging clouds. The air was fresh and there was a pale unusual cold to that August day and the bottoms of my bare feet felt stingily chilled. On the beach people were collecting Quahog like Dad, unleashed dogs ran past us with their owners calling after them and in the far off distance the same man with short arms and bushy hair, who I would see for years to come, walked the shore with a metal detector looking for, in my mind, old coins that washed ashore from pirate ships. I splashed along the shore and chased seagulls as they squealed and opened their grayish wings and dove and feasted on the meats inside opened mussels and clams. Dad on his own mission steadfastly picked up Quahogs. Back in those days Dad was a science teacher and I thought he was the smartest man alive, he called me to his side and instructed me to help him find “live” Quahogs, “They have to be alive.” He said and showed me how to touch the yellowish black neck that stuck out from the side of the clam shell and if it were alive, Dad said, the neck would retreat back into the enormous white shell and shut tightly. At first I was horrified, truthfully disgusted, but curiosity as they say, got the better part of me, and so together my father and I filled his large white bucket with live Quahogs and returned to Quincy where my mother waited for us.
In our backyard in Quincy, alongside Dad’s vegetable garden, we emptied the bucket of Quahogs on the lawn and Dad, with brush in hand, scrubbed each one and passed them to me as I rinsed them off with the running garden hose. When done, I placed each cleaned Quahog back into the cleaned bucket and filled it with clean water and my father added kitchen salt, “We’ll wait a bit for them to spit out sand.” He said. I was fascinated. Dad told me a clam in fresh water will stay firmly shut, you either had to soak them in sea water or add kitchen salt in order for the Quahogs to suck water in and spit sand out of its gut. We waited, and within an hour, on the bottom of the bucket were streams of sand.
My mother had cubed some Italian bread, chopped parsley and garlic and opened a can of tomato paste. My father took each quahog and placed them in a large stock pot and added white wine, a bay leaf and water. He steamed them until the shells opened. He saved the juice, and took the meat out of each shell and placed them in a big bowl, the smell was briny, beachy, rich, but my God, I thought, they were the ugliest looking creatures I had ever seen. They were dirty-yellow, elastic-looking and they had stomachs that looked like small pouches filled with green dirt. How could these ever, ever be good to eat? How? Then it seemed to get worse! My mother stood over the old meat grinder that once belonged to my grandmother, she started cranking the handle as my father put the Quahog meat into the grinder, turning and turning as the meat came out in a mushy yellowish-greenish-black mess. I stood back. What the hell where my parents doing? This was disgusting! How could this ever taste good? How? Well, I’ll tell you how. When done grinding the Quahog meat, my father washed the shells as my mother added to the ground Quahog the cube bread, the parsley, garlic, salt, the tomato paste, hot pepper flakes, dried basil, olive oil and a small amount of the gray juice they cooked the Quahog in. Mom tossed it all with her wooden spoon and then she and Dad filled the empty shells with the mixture placing each one on a sheet pan and topping the Stuff Quahog shells with even more green olive oil and into the oven the Stuff Quahog went until they were brown, crispy and steaming in the center.
The fragrant smell of garlic, olive oil, and tomato was rich and powerful against and the buttery, mild clam flavor and all combined it perfumed our house with a festive sea-loving goodness. When I sat down to reluctantly eat this aromatic Stuffed Quahog, I was overwhelmingly stunned at first bite, it was like nothing I had tasted and it wowed me on level that I had never experienced before. Of course I had eaten good food before, but on this day I took notice because this was the first meal where I had gathered the ingredients and participated in its creation. There was no doubt in my mind that from my first bite, to my last, my palate, robustly, elatedly was woken. I was changed forever because deep within my seven-year old core, I intuitively knew I was entering a new world of gastronomical deliciousness and I was damn excited.