My ancestors stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock 375 years ago, and ever since, the woods and ponds in this part of southeastern Massachusetts have been my family's common ground—a place where our roots run deep and where we feel a strong sense of belonging. Though I'm a New Yorker, I've regularly come to the family house just outside Plymouth since I was a child. Now, I bring my wife, Jenny, and Tess, our two-year-old daughter. As I watch Tess explore the same surroundings that I once did, my attachment to the place grows ever stronger, and I feel an overwhelming desire to introduce her, and Jenny, to the things that have made this place so special to me. And perhaps nothing summarizes my feelings about the region more purely than a bowl of chowder.
Plymouth is a community that takes chowder seriously. In this part of New England, chowder is more than a soup; it's a way of life. There are chowder societies, chowder festivals, chowder-themed boat races, and even, or so my grandmother Ruth—whom I called Utie—always believed, a chowder day: Wednesday. On that day, every week, she either made chowder at home or ate it in one of the local harborside restaurants. And she had an unwritten rule about chowder: When she cooked, it was always fish chowder; when she went out, it was always clam.
When I was a child, it seemed to me that real chowder—fish and clam alike—was a simple, honest dish of seafood, salt pork, onion, potato, milk, and not much else. At least that's what I thought then. But when I recently started searching for the quintessential chowder recipe myself—a recipe I could adopt and turn into a family tradition that Tess might one day want to pass on to her own children—I learned how much variation and complication, not to mention emotion, this classic dish could engender.
Among New Englanders, it turns out, chowder is a matter of highly impassioned and divergent opinion, even within families. For example, my mother used to put dill in her fish chowder. I can't imagine what Utie, her mother, would have said about that, but when I once proposed to my mother that white soup shouldn't have green things floating in it unless it was vichyssoise, she looked me dead in the eye and said, "If the Pilgrims had had dill, they would have put it in their fish chowder." End of subject.