Chowders: America's first 'melting pot'

A simple, rustic dish sprung from necessity has become a cultural tradition in clams and corn.

A quick glance at Daniel Webster's résumé reveals: statesman, senator, orator, chowdermaker. Chowdermaker? Yes, along with his political talents, the historical figure apparently had a knack for making stew. His best-known recipe for fish chowder mixes a head of a cod with haddock fillets cooked in a "sufficient quantity of water ... good Irish potatoes ... and a few of the largest Boston crackers," according to a timeline in "50 Chowders: One Pot Meals – Clam, Corn & Beyond," a cookbook by Chef Jasper White.

Chowders have endured as a culinary favorite of Americans – a true "melting pot" of traditions as chefs over the decades have put their own twist on the land-and-sea mix.

The dish originated as a simple meal among early American settlers who threw whatever fish and salt pork they had on hand into a pot. Today, the varieties of the stew have multiplied from corn to chicken, to that hearty New England staple: clam chowder.

Its name probably comes from chaudire, the French word for iron pot. Everyone from English, Basque, and Celtic fishermen to medieval and European cooks, are known to have mixed vegetables and fish in iron pots for a stew, according to "America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking," by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald.

But it was on the shores of the New World that "chowder" took on a distinct cultural identity.

"[Chowder] tells the story of American food," says Chef White, who is also the chef and owner of The Summer Shack, a seafood restaurant chain in Massachusetts.

He explains how experimenting with chowders is one way food products came to be included into mainstream American cuisine.

When settlers first came to the East Coast, the soil was poor for crops so they used fish – mainly cod and haddock – to make their stews. But since fish wasn't recognized as a good source of protein at the time, the broth-based mixtures were fortified with salt pork. The use of pork, and later biscuits, for thickening is what made this stew different from its European cousins.

By the 1800s, the expansion of farming brought an abundance of dairy products and vegetables to the dinner table. "Spuds" soon became a staple in chowder and are included in most recipes today. But not all potatoes are good chowder potatoes. High starch potatoes like the Russet Burbank will turn mushy, says White, while low-starch waxy ones like Red La Soda have limited use because their texture won't allow them to blend well with the rest of the ingredients.

As Americans moved to the Midwest in the mid-1800s looking for arable land, corn and tomatoes, long considered poisonous products, found their way into the soup. And in New England, clams were declared a good substitute for fish.

Bill Coyne, head chef for the 180-year-old Union Oyster House in Boston – the oldest continuing restaurant in America – knows all about New England clam chowder. Chef Coyne makes more than 40 gallons of it each day, and up to 80 gallons on the weekends.

In the kitchen, he perspires through his chef's hat as he tosses ingredients into a pan, his cheeks rosy behind his walrus mustache. First, the onions and celery sizzle with fresh cubes of salt pork. Then, a dash of flour thickens the mix. In another pot, the clam broth and potatoes mingle as Coyne stirs in plenty of cream before combining the two pans. Most important, he says, let it rest before you serve it so the flavors can meld.

While it's now consider a classic chowder, there are so many more varieties than the creamy New England version. Bermuda chowder, for example, looks more like chili than stew. It's a beef broth-based mixture of fish, crab, and enough spices to make you sweat Caribbean-style. Some other chowders do not contain any seafood or cream at all and feature such varied ingredients as meatballs, chicken, eggs, bacon, even pheasant and veal.

But what all chowders have in common, says White, is their humble origins. "It's a working-class dish," he says. "Everyday food for everyday people."

Most of the recipes in his book can be made in 30 minutes. This is why the dish can be so practical for people with busy work schedules. White recommends making a large pot and keeping it in the refrigerator overnight and for up to three days. With little effort, you'll have a meal on hand "to go" every time you open the fridge.

Most important, always feel free to improvise, he says. That way, like Webster, you, too, can add "chowdermaker" to your list of talents.

Corn chowder

3 medium ears fresh corn (or substitute 2 cups frozen or canned corn)
4 ounces bacon (about 6 pieces of sliced bacon), diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 large red bell pepper, diced
1 to 2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped (1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 pound Yukon Gold Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups chicken broth
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives or thinly sliced scallions

Husk the corn. Carefully remove most of the silk by hand and then rub the ears with a towel to finish the job. Cut the kernels from the cobs and place in a bowl. You should have about 2 cups. Using the back of your knife scrape down the cobs and add the milky substance that oozes from the corn kennels. (Tip: If you are making your own chicken broth for this recipe, add the corn cobs to the stock to increase the corn flavor. Do not scrape after removing kernels in this case.)

Heat a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat and add the diced bacon. Cook until the bacon is crisp and golden brown. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat, leaving the bacon in the pot.

Add the unsalted butter, onion, bell pepper, thyme, cumin, and turmeric and sauté for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until the onion and pepper are tender but not browned.

Add the corn kernels, potatoes, and stock, turn up the heat, cover, and boil vigorously for about 10 minutes. Some of the potatoes will have broken up, but most should retain their shape. Use the back of the spoon to smash a bit of the corn and potatoes against the side of the pot. Reduce the heat to medium, and season the chowder with salt and pepper.

Stir the dissolved cornstarch mixture and slowly pour into the pot, stirring constantly. As soon as the chowder has come back to a boil and thickened slightly, remove from heat and stir in the cream. Adjust seasoning if necessary. If you are not serving the chowder within the hour, let it cool a bit, then refrigerate. Otherwise, let it sit at room temperature for up to an hour, allowing the flavors to meld.

When ready to serve, reheat the chowder over low heat; don't let it boil. Ladle into cups or bowls and sprinkle with the chopped chives or scallions.

Serves about 4.

Adapted from "50 Chowders: One Pot Meals – Clam, Corn & Beyond" by Jasper White

New England clam chowder

1 pound potatoes, diced
1 quart clam juice (or clam broth)
2 pounds fresh clams, diced
(if you are using frozen clams, defrost in a bowl overnight)
2 ounces salt pork, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, minced
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups half-and-half, scalded
Salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and hot pepper sauce to taste
Oyster crackers, for garnish

Bring potatoes and clam juice to a boil. Cook until potatoes are done. Add the clams, along with their juice. Cook until tender, being careful not to overcook and toughen the clams. Set aside.

Skin the salt pork, dice it, and sauté in a pan. Cook until rendered. Add onions and celery, sauté until translucent. Add butter, melt, and cook slightly. Add flour. If mixture is too loose, add a little more flour. Cook until slightly colored.

Bring clams, juice, and potatoes back to boil. Add cooked flour and salt pork mixture. Sauce will thicken, so stir often. Bring to a rolling boil.

To scald the half-and-half, heat it just until steam rises from the top, do not let it boil. Add heated half-and-half to mixture to desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper, Worcestershire sauce and pepper sauce. Garnish with oyster crackers. Serves 8.

Recipe courtesy of the Union Oyster House, Boston, Mass.

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