fish chowder for the chronically landlocked

My people are from New England, and although all the genealogies have wandered off for the time being, family lore suggests that we’ve been there since the Mayflower first pulled up to Plymouth Rock and everyone clambered stiffly off the boat for the  mother of all potty breaks.  Meaning that we never left. And also that we have learned a thing or two about making chowder over the years. 

Clam chowder may be the gold standard of chowders in some circles, but I’m a fish chowder kinda gal myself.  Back in the day, prior to the 19th century, chowder wasn’t all about clams the way it seems to be now. It was more about who had caught what fish and how could we prepare it in new and thought-provoking ways.  The first known printed version of a fish chowder recipe was published by the Boston Evening Post in 1751 and is in poem form. The first known printed recipe for clam chowder wasn’t published until about a hundred years later in a cookbook called The American Frugal Housewife.

Sometime during the 18th century, French Canadian fishermen began wandering across the border, lugging along big pots called chaudieres in which they whipped up fish stews and soups.  From the name of the cooking implement – chaudiere – we get the word chowder which eventually came to refer to the dish itself – originally a thick mixture of the catch of the day and the salt pork, potatoes, onions, and crackers (nee hard ship’s biscuits) that could be pulled from ships’ stores and have been constant elements of chowders since day one.  These fishermen’s meals were cooked with a little water and no milk. The eventual addition of milk and cream into the mix made for the soupier, greasier chowders we’re familiar with today.

Speaking of the Mayflower, for more than eighty years my grandparents lived in a small Massachusetts town only a hop, skip, and a jump through damp wooded areas and cranberry bogs to Plymouth. When we visited, Nana would pick up fresh haddock from the market and serve us big bowls of milky fish chowder with potato chips and sandwiches of deli cheese and meat.  She made her chowder by memory and hasn’t made it in a few years, so I was only able to get the vaguest of recipes from her. My mother knew of my quest, however, and recently found a recipe in a little New England cookbook she has in her kitchen in Ohio. Nana used evaporated milk, she told me, but other than that it looked pretty similar. I’ve been wanting to give it a shot for awhile, but it’s not easy to come across a fish chowder sort of day in Tucson.

Finally, today when I woke, it was raining, cold, and Saturday all wrapped up into one perfect April morning. So I got out of bed and headed for the fish counter at Safeway.

A cold, rainy, fish chowder kind of day in the desert.

The chowder smelled amazing as it simmered, and sure enough, we  loved it. Raphael’s first bite reminded him inexplicably of the holidays, and he made a spur-of-the-moment decision that this will be our New Year’s Eve meal from now on. Lila’s first bite reminded her that there’s not nearly enough salt pork in her diet. My first bite reminded me of those family meals in my grandparents’ house in Massachusetts, when yellow lamplight spilled from the windows out of the house into the night and we squeezed around the table in Nana’s little wood-paneled dining room and spooned chunks of fresh fish from the hot milky broth and soaked it up with sandwiches and potato chips. The amount of salt pork in the dog’s diet may be non-negotiable, but I’m convinced that this chowder would be fine way to ring in the new year in the desert.

 New England Fish Chowder

This is a relatively thin, soupy chowder made by layering ingredients in a big pot. The layering of ingredients in older recipes prevented the salt pork from burning and possibly insured that the hard biscuits once layered into chowder would soften. I don’t know if the layering is strictly necessary in this version since the pork is removed from the pot before simmering and the biscuits long ago morphed into oyster crackers. I did it anyway and it came out well, so I won’t tell you not to. Since this is not my grandmother’s exact recipe, I took the liberty of combining a couple elements from different recipes I’ve found. The thyme, bay leaves, and butter are mine. If you live in Tucson, by the way, I found packages of sliced salt pork at Safeway over by the kielbasa.

1/4 lb salt pork, diced
2 lb fish fillets such as cod or haddock, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 med potatoes thinly sliced, about 1/3 inch thick
1 large onion thinly sliced
several sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from stems
three bay leaves
2 c water
1 Tblspn unsalted butter
2 c whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Fry pork in a large pot until crisp.  Remove pork and leave drippings in pot.

Place half the fish in the pot with the drippings and cover with half of the potatoes and half of the onions.  Add bay leaves and thyme.  Repeat layers of fish, potatoes, and onions.  Add water, top with a tablespoon of butter, and bring to boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender (I forgot to look at the clock – it might have taken 25 to 35 minutes).  Add milk, salt and pepper, and crispy pork bits.  Heat slowly until hot but do not boil.

a history of chowder


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