Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright