This time I take the Stand.
I have been living in Italy for more than 30 years by now, and Italians occasionally ask me what I miss about the United States. To be honest, not much aside from childhood friends and family; places are places, and while what I left behind was nice where I am today is too, and home and immediate family are here.
One thing I do miss however are traditional American dishes, and while my Italian friends tend to equate American cooking with fast food, we all know there is much, much more. For example chowder, a rich creamy soup New Englanders have been making since they first waded ashore in the 1600s.
As one might expect of a dish that old, it does have European roots – the OED traces it to towns in Brittany and Cornwall, which face each other across the English Channel – and two origins have been proposed for the name, the first that it derives from chaudiere, the French word for the cauldrons traditionally used to cook the dish, and the second that it derives from jowter, an Old English term for fish peddler.
In any case, chowder is a rich soup that’s distinguished from other soups by the presence of salt pork and, in older recipes, well-soaked ship’s biscuits. Though modern recipes generally include milk or cream, older recipes, which often call for layering of the ingredients, are as likely to call for white wine as the liquid, and have the cook thicken the liquid with flour and butter. The other thing to note about older recipes is that they are for fish chowder, not the clam chowder so common today – Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont note that while 17th century Native Americans were enthusiastic consumers of shellfish, the Pilgrims considered mussels and clams to be the meanest of God’s blessings and fed them to their hogs.
And it took a while for this situation to change; 18th century American chowder recipes call for fish, and many come across more as fish casseroles than soups. For example, Amelia Simmons’s Chouder recipe, the first to be published in an American cookbook, in 1800: “Take a bass weighing four pounds, boil half an hour; take six slices raw salt pork, fry them till the lard is nearly extracted, one dozen crackers soaked in cold water five minutes; put the bass into the lard, also the pieces of pork and crackers, cover close, and fry for 20 minutes; serve with potatoes, pickles, apple-sauce or mangoes; garnish with green parsley.” A modern diner faced with this dish would likely enjoy it (Ms. Simmons doesn’t say so, but I wold skin and bone the fish, and add it in pieces to the pork and crackers), but would also likely not identify it as a chowder.
The first recipe to call for clams was published by Lydia Maria Child in 1832, but many other authors continued to use fish, and in 1841 Sarah Josepha Hale gave excellent instructions for making a layered cod chowder in The Good Housekeeper: “Lay some slices cut from the fat part of pork, in a deep stewpan, mix sliced onions with a variety of sweet herbs, and lay them on the pork; bone and cut a fresh cod into thin slices, and place them on the pork, then put a layer of pork, on that a layer of biscuit, then alternately the other materials until the pan is nearly full, then season with pepper and salt, put in about a quart of water, cover the stew pan very close, and let it stand, with fire above as well as below (i.e. with coals on the lid), for four hours; then skim it well, and it is done. This is an excellent dish and healthy, if not eaten too hot.”
One could do much worse. And this brings us to clam chowder, which generally gains added body from potatoes. There are, as one might guess, a great many recipes out there. This one is drawn from American cook and food historian James Beard, who said it was the first soup he ever ate, and called it his first love:
- 1 quart live clams (you can if need be use canned clams – figure about 1 1/2 cups drained clams)
- 1 cup white wine or water
- 3 or 4 slices salt pork or bacon, cut in a small dice – since I am in Italy, I chose to use rigatino, flat pancetta
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
- Salt and pepper
- 2 cups light cream
- Fresh thyme, finely minced (Mr. Beard calls for it; for me it would be optional)
- Parsley, chopped
Put the clams in an untreated saucepan (clam shells will ruin a non-stick coating) with the wine or water. Cover and steam them until they open. Filter the liquid though a strainer and into a bowl, and set it aside. Remove the clams from their shells, discarding any that did not open, and set them aside.
Sauté the salt pork, bacon, or rigatino in its own fat. Remove it when it is crisp and drain it on paper towels. Lightly brown the onion in the remaining fat.
Cook the diced potatoes in boiling water to cover until just tender. Remove them with a slotted spoon and let the water cook down a bit. Combine the bacon, onion, potato, and potato water in a deep saucepan and add the clam juice. Bring thie mixture to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gradually add the cream and when it has just come to a boiling point, add the clams. Heat them through, but do not boil boil them lest they toughen. Sprinkle with the merest pinch of finely minced thyme.
Mr. Beard says to serve his chowder in heated cups with a dash of paprika and a little chopped parsley. In the United States I would also crumble an oyster cracker or two over the chowder. Since they are not available in Italy, I might go with a couple of unflavored taralli, which are not quite the same but will do as a substitute.
Last thing: Clam chowder is a hearty soup. If the cream you have is not sufficient to produce a chowder of the heartiness you desire, you can thicken it by rolling a ball of butter in some flour, incorporating as much flour as possible into the butter, and then adding the ball to the soup before you add the clams; cook for a minute or two, stirring gently, and the chowder will thicken.