Wednesday, July 21, 2010
THE CHOWDER CHRONICLES Chapter One
Al Cooper’s version of fish chowder for this week features fresh steelhead salmon from the Pacific Northwest, fresh garden peas, and tiny whole onions.
My very first experience with the subject about which I write with a deep sense of appreciation took place in the basement of an old stone Episcopal Church in Edgewater, New Jersey. I was probably around five years of age, and the occasion was the annual clam chowder supper which happened to be a long-standing tradition of this particular congregation – one of several for which my uncle was the organist. It was a Manhattan style (tomato-based) chowder, the version favored by folks who lived on the Jersey shore. All these years after, I can still call up a detailed picture of the time, the place, the people and above all, the steaming bowl of wonder passed to me through a kitchen serving window along with a handful of requisite “pilot crackers”.
Here I have to take a few minutes to pay homage to the great American ethic known as “the church supper”, especially in northern New England where I was fortunate enough to do much of my growing up and where, to this day, we try on each year’s pilgrimage to hit at least one or two: from “chicken pot pie”, “baked bean and winter squash”, “turkey and sage dressing”, “venison and wild game”, and of course “clam bakes” and “lobster festivals”. One of our favorites is in the small Vermont village of Shrewsbury, where we can count on being entertained by a group of local Blue Grass musicians as we wait our turn in line. (The local volunteer fire department gets most of its annual funding from this popular event.)
You will notice that the word local is used several times in this soliloquy, underlining what makes these occasions so important to those of us who love to see food, history, geography and tradition blended together in such a delicious setting. Just as I savor corner book stores featuring local writers, I find delight in the culinary wonder hiding from the larger world in America’s small towns and forgotten neighborhoods. And nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of chowders and chowder-makers.
In 1732, a New England diarist named Benjamin Lynde mentions having “dined on a fine chowdered cod”, the first written reference in America to the dish we call chowder (or in Maine chow’dah). It is believed it probably originated some time earlier in the 1700s, probably on board a sailing ship or fishing boat where a freshly-caught fish was layered with other ingredients, including salt pork and ship’s biscuits , and cooked in an iron pot. The name may well come from that cooking vessel, known in the French as a “chaudiere” or cauldron. Some think it started with the Old English term for a fish monger or “jowter”. The first known recipe for chowder to be published appeared in the Boston Evening Post on September 23rd 1751.(I have a copy of that relic which is written as a clever rhyme.)
The most important thing to understand is that chowder is not “soup”. While it is closer to being a stew in consistency, it is distinct even from that designation in that there is nothing “random” when it comes to constituent ingredients and the order in which they come into play. The first chowders featured a principle component from the sea, such as fin fish and/or shell fish, married together with available root vegetables, salt pork and milk or cream. Crackers were often used as a natural thickener. As New Englanders moved west and new immigrants arrived (Portuguese sausage in Rhode Island etc.) they found new ways of varying their old kitchen traditions. In this inaugural “chapter”, we will concentrate on seafood chowders, saving “Farmhouse” chowders for another time.
More often than not, the word chowder is associated with the word clam – that luscious bivalve which graces our shores in great numbers. In northern, New England, the most favored are the little neck or cherry stones while in the Boston area, the larger quahogs predominate in chowder-making kitchens. On the west coast, the even larger and comical-looking geoducks (pronounced gooy-duk) work well, while Bahamians substitute conch meat in their own unique version.
The “war” between red and white chowder aficionados is long and legendary and will never be settled. I like both, but white (New England style) is a clear winner for me. Then there is the ongoing contest between “thick and creamy” versus ”thinner milkier” versions. I come down squarely in the middle on that one. Over the years, we have conducted our own delicious tasting contests as we travel the “chowder corridor” from Boston, down east to Bar Harbor. (We are the quintessential chowder snobs, avoiding some communities altogether if their chowder isn’t up to snuff.) Our favorite remains a Portsmouth, New Hampshire eatery known as The Dinnerhorn, with Shaw’s Wharf in New Harbor, Maine being a perennial hang-out. And of course, Cappy’s Chowder House in Camden, Maine gets an honorable mention. For old-fashioned Haddock Chowder, it’s hard to beat The Anchor Inn at Round Pond Maine. Fresh haddock is, on all counts, the supreme choice for the dedicated fish chowder chef!
Whenever I can obtain a bucket of freshly-dug cherry stones, I prefer to make my own clam chowder, building first a base of clam broth, onions, celery, bay leaves, smoked bacon, and cubed new potatoes, with the chopped clam meat (or fin fish) and heavy cream added at the tail end and allowed to cook for just a few final minutes.
In future chapters of “The Chowder Chronicles”, we will look at “Farmhouse” and other variations of this traditional American “comfort food” along with companion breads to go with them . . . but I have to stop here because a noble cauldron of newly-made fish chow’dah is waiting for the final touch in the kitchen.