In Chapter XV of Moby-Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg arrive on Nantucket Island, tired and in need of dinner. They make their way to the Try Pots restaurant, where the proprietor’s wife, Mrs. Hussey, seats them at a table still dirty with the remnants of the previous diners’ meal. She then asks them but a single question: “Clam or Cod?”
Ishmael is perplexed. What sort of a restaurant, he wonders, would offer, as one of its options, a single bivalve for supper, and on a cold December night at that? He asks for clarification, but Mrs. Hussey, hearing just the word clam in Ishmael’s query, hustles off to the kitchen and calls out the order: “clam for two.”
Only when Ishmael detects “a warm savory steam from the kitchen,” and only when two bowls are subsequently placed before them, is the mystery resolved. Chowder. Clam chowder. And what a chowder it turns out to be:
Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, 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 favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition …
This chapter, called, appropriately enough, “Chowder,” is as lovely an ode to that noble seafood concoction as any you’re likely to find. And clam chowder is a noble thing—I mean white chowder, rich with milk or cream. (I like Manhattan chowder fine enough, but it has nothing to do with Ishmael and Queequeg, and I won’t be mentioning it here again.) But is the New England chowder we know today similar to what Melville’s diners might have had on a frigid Nantucket evening in the 1840s? I wanted to know more about that particular chowder and see whether I could replicate it in my kitchen. But where to turn for a recipe?
Little consensus exists about the origins of chowder. The word could derive from the French chaudière or chaudron, meaning an iron cauldron, or the English jowter, meaning fishmonger. French and English settlers, familiar with the seafood stews of the early 18th century, might well have cooked the first North American chowders, but the Mi’kmaq people, who harvested clams from the waters off Canada’s Atlantic Coast, may have beaten them to it. We do know that chowder soon became a typical seafarer’s dish, and it’s telling that the experienced mariner Queequeg sees in the bowl placed before him “his favorite fishing food.”
The earliest chowders were layered dishes, thick and dense—not the brothy soups of today. “I imagine the results,” writes the New England chef Jasper White, “were not something that you or I would enjoy—the flavor might have been quite good, but the texture was probably mushy and porridge-like.” (This isn’t surprising considering the scarcity of potable water on a ship.)
The first printed recipe for chowder appeared, in the form of a poem, in the Boston Evening-Post on September 23, 1751:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning;
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crosways very nice,
Then season well with Pepper Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next, which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel:
For by repeating o’re the same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men.
Last Bottle of Claret, with Water eno’ to smother ’em
You’l have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.
Note the absence here of potatoes, which didn’t make their way into chowders until later. Instead, the recipe calls for “Biscuit,” another word for hardtack, an imperishable cracker that was a shipboard pantry staple. Hardtack evolved into pilot bread, a more digestible product that was sold at America’s first commercial bakery. (That bakery later became the National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco.)
The combination of red wine and fish might seem unorthodox, but it was common enough in early chowders. It’s the kind of wine the recipe mentions—claret—that suggests that this isn’t the dish that Ishmael and Queequeg enjoy. In his 1793 treatise, General Instructions for the Choice of Wines and Spiritous Liquors, Duncan McBride tells us that the “best wine known in France … is the wine called claret” and that the “best of these” are “mostly exported from Bordeaux.” Would a wine expressing “the very best quality of France,” with “a fine mellow taste … and a delightful flavour,” appear in a humble fisherman’s repast? Highly unlikely.
This earliest of chowder recipes, moreover, is for fish chowder, not clam. Indeed, fish would predominate as the main ingredient for many years. (Ishmael also has a bowl of cod chowder at the Try Pots.) The second edition of Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1800) calls for bass, and Mary Randolph, in her seminal Virginia Housewife (1824), recommends “any kind of firm fish.” The statesman Daniel Webster, a noted chowder aficionado, prepared his with cod and haddock. The first mentions of clam chowder appear in two books from the 1830s—Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife and Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery—but Leslie’s recipe allows for “a layer of sliced potatoes” as well as ship’s biscuit.
Webster’s 1842 recipe, which calls for “a sufficient quantity of water,” does offer a clue about the texture of the Try Pots chowder. It was around this time that chowders started to evolve from the dense porridge of the 1700s to the soup we know today. The change is also reflected in a recipe included in the 1847 edition of Mrs. T. J. Crowen’s American System of Cookery, which tells the cook to thin the dish out with either milk or water. James Beard, in his American Cookery (1972), praises Crowen’s recipe as “delicious,” though the dish is “not so much a chowder as a first-rate stew.” Crucially, however, Crowen omits salt pork, a necessary ingredient.
In the end, I cobbled together several recipes, roughly following the proportions suggested by James Beard. I knew I needed “small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts,” so I ordered a large quantity of littlenecks. Tinned pilot bread crackers turned out to be available online (they taste like saltines without the salt and have enough monocalcium phosphate and calcium propionate to last a few sea voyages). I got some salt pork and, as Melville writes, “cut [it] up into little flakes.” (Translation: I finely diced the meat.) And though Melville doesn’t mention onions, they seem to be an important ingredient in several early recipes, fried initially in the rendered fat of the salt pork. I knew, as well, that my dish had to be layered, that it should not be overly brothy, but not stodgy, either. The result of this experiment, conducted on a cold spring night, was rich, nourishing, and delicious.
Soak 2 cups of coarsely crumbled pilot bread crackers in milk and set aside. Clean 8 dozen littleneck clams and place in a large pot set over medium heat, with enough water to come up about an inch. (Work in batches if your pot isn’t big enough.) When the shells have opened, shuck the meat (discarding any clams that remain closed) and set aside, making sure to keep the juice from the shells. Strain this liquid, along with whatever liquor remains in the pot, through cheesecloth, and reserve. Now finely dice 2½ ounces of salt pork and fry in a skillet over medium-low heat. If the salt pork isn’t releasing enough fat, add a pat of butter. After a few minutes of gentle frying, add one chopped onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the onion has softened. Now assemble the chowder. Butter a 10-inch casserole and alternate layers of soaked cracker, the salt pork–onion mixture, and the clams, adding chopped parsley to each layer, along with black pepper, a little salt, and tiny knobs of butter. The final layer should be soaked cracker. Mix ½ cup of the reserved clam juice with ½ cup of heavy cream and pour this evenly over the dish. Cover with foil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 40 minutes. Sprinkle with more parsley and serve in soup bowls.
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