Clamoring for clam chowder

Soup: Hearty seafood dish rediscovered as more people seek homey, comforting foods.

April 03, 2002|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Clam chowder shouldn't be as thin as sea water, nor should it be as solid as the sand or mud flats in which clams thrive.

All too often, however, the clam chowder that people order in restaurants or pour out of a can is as white and pasty as library glue, according to New England chef Jasper White.

That's not the way it is at his two restaurants, the Summer Shacks in Cambridge, Mass., and at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

"Chowder is a hearty dish served in a large shallow bowl, with chunks of potato and onion and seafood in a steaming aromatic liquid," says White, a chowder cheerleader and author of 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals -- Clam, Corn and Beyond (Scribner, 2000, $30).

The dish also is getting a new lease on life, he says, as chefs rediscover chowder in its older form and experiment with making other seafood and vegetable chowders. It's also becoming more and more popular as people clamor for homey, comforting foods.

"The beauty of clam chowder," White says, "is that it doesn't need to be eaten the day it is made. As a matter of fact, it tastes better the second day. That means anyone, no matter how hectic their professional life is, can take the time to prepare the ingredients for a big pot of chowder.

"Just let it cook for a while and then refrigerate it until the following day. It can be reheated in 15 minutes. Served with a quick salad and a good loaf of bread, it makes a delicious meal."

Because clam chowder is best made a day in advance, it also can be the main course for a casual party in early spring.

White, who probably has researched chowder more than any other chef in the country, includes 10 kinds of clam chowder in his book and refuses to take the bait to argue for New England-style chowder and against Manhattan clam chowder.

"It's really not a gastronomic rivalry. It's more of a political one that goes back to 1918, when the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It was part of the regional rivalry that resulted from that trade," White says. "Besides," he adds, "I've spent too much time researching chowders and studying their evolution to claim there is only one true great chowder."

Warns the scholar of chowder bowls: "Clam chowder was not even the first chowder. It was a fish chowder and probably was made on board ship. Sailing vessels of the early 1700s had little else than salt pork, hardtack [ship's biscuit] and fresh fish. The chowder probably was used to make the hardtack more edible," he says.

White discovered clams weren't even mentioned in chowder recipes until 1833, when Lydia Maria Child published her 12th edition of The American Frugal Housewife. As she explains how to make the chowder, she mentions lemons, beer and a few clams as possible additions.

Four years later, White writes, "Eliza Leslie from Philadelphia would write in her Directions for Cookery that `chowder may be made of clams' and also advocated the potato as a chowder ingredient."

In his history, White notes that clams and tomatoes began appearing together in chowders between 1850 and 1860 and that milk, butter and cream were gaining acceptance as chowder ingredients in Northern New England between 1860 and 1880. About that time, he writes, "Chowder is no longer a simple dish of fish or clams; it has become a genre, a way to make dinner."

Now deeply ingrained in the culture of New England, it seemed to be reaching its high in popularity. Chowder parties were a happy summer pastime along the coast, where families would pack up a kettle, dishes, flatware and ingredients for chowder-making, as well as cold foods such as watermelon and dessert. After gathering the clams or catching some fish in the surf, the party crowds would make their chowders on the beach in kettles suspended over open fires.

Chowders continued evolving in content and style until the 1950s, when, White says, the "Howard Johnsonization" of America began. He and other American chefs who've taken the time to learn about proper chowders have been doing damage-control ever since.

White dubs the period the "Dark Ages of America's culinary history" and describes it as a time when home cooks began thinking good chowder started with opening a can and when professional cooks of questionable ability degraded chowder into a souplike paste, pathetic bits of rubberlike clams and tasteless potatoes.

Diane Stoneback is a reporter for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Jasper White's New England Clam (Quahog) Chowder

Makes 10 cups; serves 10 as a first course or 6 as a main course

8 pounds small quahogs or large cherrystone clams, plus 2 cups of water

4-ounce slab (unsliced) bacon, rind removed and cut into 1/3 -inch dice

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium onions (12 to 14 ounces), cut into 1/2 -inch dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 stalks (4 ounces) celery, cut into 1/3 -inch dice

5 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (2 teaspoons)

2 dried bay leaves

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