I cooked a clam chowder this past weekend, converting a bucket full of quahogs into the only food remotely resembling ethnic cooking in the Chatfield-Churbuck ethnography. Jokes about Wonder Bread and mayonnaise tastes of WASPs aside, there are few foods blander than clams steeped in milk with potatoes, onion, and salt pork.
This is the comfort food of my childhood, a big deal that involved my father and grandfather working through the ritual of clamming (always done barefoot, without rakes) in the harbor, gauging the clams through a ring to make sure there were no undersized specimens, then letting them rest under the grape arbor in old green canvas buckets so they would expel any sand and get cleaner before the shucking. The shucking was done outdoors, on the wooden steps of the porch, with bottles of beer at hand and an enameled bowl to catch the meat and clam juice. Yellow jackets hovered but were ignored. Both men would gently lift a clam out of the bucket and then, with a mighty but precise effort, slip a wood-handled clam knife into the hinge and on inside of the shell to pop the two muscles and free the meat with a circular flourish from the white and blue shells. My job was to take those empty shells and throw them around the driveway to be crushed by the tires and gradually bleach bright white in the Cape Cod sun.
A stubborn clam which resisted the knife was called a “mad” clam and was set aside to relax before a second effort was made. Clams were never — as I am guilty of — boiled or steamed open. I don’t recall the knives ever slipping and gouging into bare hands (no one wore gloves), no matter how many bottles of beer were involved, something I wish I could claim for myself, having completely impaled my hand on one occasion.
The clams used for a chowder are big ones â€“ shells the size of a man’s closed fist â€“ not the dainty littlenecks one would serve raw on the half-shell. Such clams are called “chowders” and tend to live in deeper water, requiring the extreme low tide of a full or new moon to reach without submerging oneself to pull them out of the muck.
Inside the kitchen a bag of yellow onions and a bag of Idaho potatoes were peeled and diced in a big mess of peels and tears. (lazy people leave the potato skins on). Chowder was generally made in bulk, not in small batches, so the kitchen was taken over in a big display of manly cooking skills, an anomaly for my young mind which was that the kitchen was the domain of my mother and grandmother, not two big beer drinkers in dirty shorts.
Another memorable sight was the appearance of the evil meat grinder, a seldom used tool which was used to grind the clams into chowder-sized pieces. The Cusinart has condemned the meat grinder to history, but nostalgia demands that I declare clams that are ground up by hand and not whirred into a formless paste simply taste better.
A large Alzheimer’s-inducing aluminum pot, scavenged from some civil defense bomb shelter or army camp, was set on the stove. Into it went a pound of diced salt pork â€“ fatback to be precise â€“ a primal meat from the 19th century, when whalers would pack away barrels of the stuff to provide protein and hasten the arrival of scurvy during long voyages at sea. Every time I go to the grocery store looking for fat back I half expect to see it missing, discontinued because Ishmael has passed away and isn’t shopping at Stop & Shop anymore.
“However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.
We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? “But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?”
Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen’s boats, I saw Hosea’s brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod’s decapitated head, looking very slipshod, I assure ye. ”
The salt pork was rendered for a few minutes until each little cube was golden brown and the clear fat was smoking â€“ smoke detectors would have gone off had the house had them then, and I set them off every time I make a chowder. The fatback cubes were set aside to drain their grease onto a folded brown paper bag, and hands were slapped if they tried to pilfer away a piece.
Into the pot went the onions, and a few minutes later the potatoes, cooked for ten minutes and stirred to keep it from sticking and to coat everything in some pork fat. Down went the heat, in went the clams, with their juice or liquor, and the base was simmered for an hour to trick the potatoes into tasting like clams.
Gallons of whole milk â€“ none of the sissy skim stuff â€“ were poured in, and the result was carefully watched, for nothing ruins a chowder faster than boiling. Three or four cans of evaporated milk were added for richness (never make the mistake of adding the sickly sweet condensed milk used for pies). For three or four hours the vat simmered, flecked with spots of yellow pork fat, and at bed time the cover was put on and the pot parked in the boat shop â€“ unrefrigerated â€“ to settle down and really develop a flavor.
The next afternoon was a chowder party. Cousins and house guests, neighbors and friends, were invited over to sit at tables in the back yard and be served bowls of the stuff. A few pieces of the crisp salt pork were floated in each bowl, and plenty of oyster crackers were served to thicken the soup for those who liked crackers. Stuffed quahogs â€“ aka “stuffies” â€“ were served, along with raw littlenecks and big steaming bowls of steamers. It wasn’t a clambake â€“ it was a chowder party. It is the single Proustian smell and taste of my Cotuit childhood and it makes me happy to see my kids tuck into a bowl of what is basically hot clam-flavored milk, the best paternal DNA proof I could hope for.
So, to recap the recipe: salt pork fatback diced up and fried, peeled and diced Idaho potatoes, diced yellow onions, whole milk, evaporated milk. That’s it. No spices, no flour, no corn starch, no tomatoes. Versions such as Manhattan Clam Chowder were derided as soundly as the New York Yankees. Introduce something like celery, or anything green â€“ from parsley to sage â€“ and you’re not making a Cape Cod clam chowder. It pains me, to no end, to enter a restaurant and order clam chowder and end up with a horribly thick mess that tastes like it came out of a commercial food service can designed to serve 200 people. Thicker is not better when it comes to chowder. Thickness is added by crushing up crackers â€“ like Melville’s pounded ship biscuits â€“ not by some gag inducing colloidal suspension made with cornstarch. My rule â€“ if you see green stuff â€“ parsley, any herb â€“ it’s ain’t chowder. If you can coat the back of the spoon â€“ it’s not chowder.
What is chowder? Well, I could bullshit you and say it comes from “chow” â€“ but no, I think the most probable etymological theory is that the term came south from the French Canadian Maritimes as chaudiere â€“ or cauldron.
My chowder would never win one of the chowder contests held around the region. It is way too thin for most people â€“ an alien experience â€“ but every so often, very rarely if ever, I have found the real thing in places like Wimpy’s in Osterville (not any more, they went thick and out of the can), or the late Sandy’s in Buzzard’s Bay at the foot of the Bourne Bridge.
Whatever. I know how to make it and now you do too.