In 1851, in the absence of a hearty serving of the flesh of his enemies, Queequeg, Ishmael’s travelling companion in “Moby-Dick”, makes do with clam chowder. The pair greedily devour their chowder in Nantucket: “small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salt pork and cut up into little flakes! The whole enriched with butter and plentifully seasoned with salt and pepper.”
That chowder, in a variety of guises, has seeped across the eastern seaboard: New England’s is creamy and pale; Manhattan’s is ruddy with tomato, a legacy of Portuguese and Italian migrants; the broth of Rhode Island is the most austere. Of Manhattan’s attempts New Englanders are disdainful: “I wouldn’t touch it,” vows one. Those who stray far from America’s north-eastern shore seek it out upon their return; a cup of chowder tells them they are home. But is theirs the original? It doesn’t matter, says another; his people have perfected it – who cares if they were the first to cook the stuff?
In fairness, early instructions, in the form of a poem, did appear in the Boston Evening Post in 1751. More prosaic recipes have since proliferated. Fannie Farmer, author of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” (which introduced Americans to standardised measurements such as spoons and cups), includes one. Other giants of American cook-bookery, from Julia Child to Irma Rombauer – Mrs “Joy of Cooking”– offer directions in their tomes.
At the heart of every chowder are the clams (or at least they should be – some versions taste more like a bowl of cream through which bivalves have merely bobbed). Fresh hard-shell ones, littlenecks or quahogs, are best, but most recipes allow that the canned kind with their briny liquor are a plausible substitute. Scrub them, steam them, strain them. Save the broth. Then dice their meat. Ignore suggestions such as Child’s to mince them to a complete mush; the clams should remain discernible.
Salt pork, or more likely bacon these days, starts things off. Once fried, the savoury slivers can be left in the pot to flavour the soup as it progresses, or extracted and reserved as a crisp garnish. Next some kind of allium – shallots, onions, leeks – sweated down, melting into the rendered pork fat. Then the herbal flavourings – a bay leaf, celery, perhaps some thyme – and a scant sprinkling of flour to thicken the broth (not too much: wallpaper paste is not the aim).
The clam liquor provides the base of the soup and potatoes give it body. Jasper White, author of “50 Chowders” and once advisor to Legal Seafooods, whose chowder has been served at American presidential inaugurations since 1981, recommends a waxy variety, the better to avoid complete disintegration. The steamed clam meat should be added late in the game, to avoid overcooking. Save the dairy – a slop of cream and enough butter to make little puddles on the surface – for the gentle heat at the end. Finally, top with a heap of oyster crackers, dry, flavourless, but a necessary Proustian garnish – ask any New Englander. The end result, tasting delicately but distinctly of the sea, well complemented by the savoury, salty hint of pork, hearty enough to get you through a New England winter, is a dish of which those easterners can be proud.