Clam chowder is one of those foods that few regions of the country can agree on. Where people do seem to agree, however, is that it is one of the best cold weather options for enjoying the savory local catch.
It's hard to decipher a concise origin for the dish. Almost as long as there has been seafood, humans have combined it with vegetables and broth to form soups and stews, often to stretch limited resources. Colonial chowders were created by layering ingredients and involved salt pork and fish or clams with a clear broth, not unlike the Down East Clam Chowder enjoyed in Carteret County.
Author Jasper White notes in his book “50 Chowders” that the first printed recipe for fish chowder was published on Sept. 23, 1751 in the Boston Evening Post and by 1884, Mrs. D.A. Lincoln included a recipe for clam chowder in the “Boston Cooking School Cook Book.” While parts of the country remained dedicated to the traditional juice broth, others transitioned to milk. But it wasn’t until someone suggested the addition of tomatoes that things really got ugly.
Some attribute the addition to Portuguese immigrants who were already creating a variety of tomato based soups, while other reports give Italians credit for adding the color. Regardless of where it hailed, it was widely dismissed by clam chowder purists as nothing less than heresy. In 1939, Assemblyman Cleveland Seeder of Maine even attempted to pass legislation making it illegal to use tomatoes in chowder. He was unsuccessful, of course, and variations of clam chowder continued to grow.
Everyone can agree that coastal North Carolina and some northern coastal states lean toward a more traditional clear broth, New England Clam Chowder has a thicker cream-base and what became known as Manhattan Clam Chowder has the much maligned tomato base. But did you know that Long Island Clam Chowder is a blend of both – adding the cream and the tomatoes? Or that in the northwest the pork belly is often replaced with smoked salmon? In the St. Augustine region of Florida chefs have gone one step further, adding Cuban datil peppers for a spicier version of clam chowder.
When it comes to local Down East Clam Chowder we turned to Pam Morris of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center and Carteret Catch for insight.
Clam Chowder and Oyster Stew, sometimes referred to as Stewed Clams or Stewed Oysters in the Core Sound area is, as a rule, not made with tomatoes, milk or cream and contains simple ingredients traditionally grown and used in the 19th century, said Morris.
“I say this because my Grandmama, Florence Paul Davis, always said combining milk with seafood would make you sick and never cooked with it or let us kids eat seafood and drink milk together. I believe this to be a prevalent food myth in those days.”
The basic ingredients for Down East Clam Chowder include clams, white potatoes, yellow onions, salt-cured fat meat and corn meal dumplings in a clear broth soup. The key, notes Morris, is locally caught hard clams, the bigger the better as they are a lot easier to clean. She suggests cherrystone or chowder size as opposed to little necks or top necks.
The secret to opening fresh clams is to sit them in the freezer until their mouths open slightly, shared Morris, but understand if you do, some of the precious clam juice might escape. When opening the clams (you can use an oyster knife for this,) do it over a bowl to catch all of the juice. Strain the juice to remove any grit. Morris suggests gutting the clams by taking out the dark part (the stomach) to help remove any additional grittiness, then wash them thoroughly before chopping.
“Fresh seafood always tastes best and that is what makes great clam chowder,” she added.
We couldn’t agree more – especially for those of us who live near the coast. Whether you prefer the localized version or opt for the more widely known New England Clam Chowder – which ties with chicken noodle soup as the most loved soup in America – there is no better way to beat the winter cold.
Down East Clam Chowder
1/2 bushel of chowder or cherrystone clams, gutted and washed twice, or a quart to half-gallon cleaned clams, plus saved clam juice
5 strips lean bacon or fat meat, notched to the rind so it will lay flat
5 lbs white potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4-5 quarts water
Salt & pepper to taste
Prepare clams and reserve the juice. Spray the bottom of a 6-8 quart pot with nonstick cooking spray. Fry the fat meat until brown and crispy. Remove and set aside. Add clams, clam juice, potatoes, onions, to pot. Add salt & pepper. Pour water to cover. Crumble and add fat meat. Boil an hour without a lid. Stir to keep potatoes from sticking. Add cornmeal dumplings and boil additional 30 minutes. Dumplings will thicken the chowder.
1 cup fine ground yellow cornmeal
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
Mix dry ingredients and add 3 tbsp water to start with, blend and add water as needed to make cornmeal stick together. Form 1/4 inch think circles about 3 inches wide and drop in chowder.
New England Clam Chowder
2 cups chopped clams, reserved juice
2 cups russet potato, peeled and cubed
3 slices of bacon
1 bay leaf
¼ cup butter
1 finely chopped yellow onion
2 full garlic cloves, minced
1 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Prepare clams and reserve the juice. Cook bacon in a 6-8 quart pot, drain, cool and crumble. Over medium heat, sauté onions and celery with bay leaf, garlic, salt and pepper. Add butter and flour, stir, and slowly add reserved clam juice, cream and milk while whisking. Bring to a boil and bacon and potato, simmering until soft. Use additional milk to adjust thickness as desired. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with oyster crackers.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
2 cups chopped clams, reserve juice
2 cups potato, peeled and diced
3 slices bacon
1 yellow onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bay leaf
½ cup white wine
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 - 16 oz can whole tomatoes, with juice
Fresh minced parsley, for garnish
Prepare clams and reserve the juice. Cook bacon in a 6-8 quart pot, drain, cool and crumble. Sauté onion and celery in the bacon drippings with salt and pepper and bay leaf. Add bacon and wine, reduce until almost dry. Add reserved clam juice, broth and tomatoes with juice, crushing tomatoes in the pot. Simmer 20 minutes. Add potatoes and simmer until tender. Salt and pepper to taste.