Chowder Country

This quintessentially Yankee seafood soup is serious business in New England.

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.

There was no dill in my cousin Chuck Davis's famous fish chowder, which I'd eaten on special occasions throughout my childhood. There were plenty of other things, though—a fact he explained, when I went to talk to him about chowder, by informing me that, in our family at least, chowder made by the men was different than chowder made by the women. Maybe it was due to the "specialness" of a man being in the kitchen in the past, he said, but for whatever reasons, the recipes ascribed to them were more elaborate affairs, with infusions of herbs, reductions of stock, and brightly colored vegetables.

Chuck showed me recipes for chowder thickened with flour, crushed crackers, and cornstarch; recipes that called for neither milk nor cream; recipes in which the chowder was cooked in the oven, not on top of the stove. One contained lobster and corn! My head swam. Maybe Chuck could just show me how he made his chowder, I suggested. "You want to make my fish chowder?" he responded. "I hope you have time. It takes three days." I told him I had three weeks if that was what it took, and we set a date.

The next day I stopped in at my insurance office to see Richmond Talbot, who either has a sideline writing a food column for the local newspaper or a sideline in insurance, depending on how you view things. I told him of my search for a chowder recipe I could call my own and of my confusion about the subject. He suggested we join members of Plymouth's venerable Old Colony Club at one of their regular Chowder Nights. On a beautiful July evening, we arrived at the club's headquarters, where Jim Baker, chief historian at Plimoth [sic] Plantation—a re-creation of the Plymouth colony circa 1627—was preparing the chowder. He bases his recipe on mostly historical and family sources. It had nearly all I could ask for: a rich, sturdy base from salt pork and milk; a comforting feel as potato gave way against the tongue; onions so soft they disappeared just as the teeth began to encounter slight resistance from the clam meat. I ate three bowls and was tempted to end my search right there. I might well have—but I wanted to explore this family business about "men's" chowder.

It was time for cousin Chuck's chowder demonstration—the first day of it, anyway. His "man-ness" as a chowder cook became evident when he added wine and herbs to the stock he was brewing. On the second day, he made a classic chowder base but added celery to it. On day three, he combined stock and base, added the fish, and ladled it out. The result was sublime—complex, rich, and thoroughly satisfying. I'm not sure, however, that the process really needs to take three days. And I'm not sure that, with a two-year-old daughter, I'd have the time to make it like that anyway.

Richmond Talbot proposed that a tasting tour of a couple of local restaurants might further help focus my thoughts on chowder. We started at Lindsey's, a family-style place in Buzzards Bay not far from Plymouth, where I've always liked the chowders—both fish and clam. Each was as hearty and delicious as I'd remembered, but upon tasting them for research, I found them thicker than I'd want my version to be. We moved on to the Crane Brook Restaurant & Tea Room, a favorite of Richmond's, where we tried a rich chowder made of three kinds of cod—fresh, smoked, and salt-preserved—topped with chopped chives. I enjoyed this unorthodox "man-style" dish—but like Chuck's, it was a bit too fussy to become a dish I would plan to cook often.

I could easily have continued my pleasurable quest for the perfect chowder in restaurants throughout New England, but I felt as if I'd done enough investigating. It was time to get into the kitchen. Breaking with family tradition, I decided to try a simple clam chowder. I steamed the clams, cooked the onions in fat rendered from salt pork, cubed and boiled the potatoes, then brought everything together with milk and cream. It was done in about an hour.

A few nieces joined Jenny and Tess for a tasting of my chowder. I ladled some into bowls and watched: Tess seemed to grow happier with each bite; my wife and nieces ate theirs eagerly, too. I tried some myself, letting the salty and sweet flavor of the milky broth linger. I had to admit that it was a pretty decent debut.

The next day, finishing the leftovers, I found that the flavors had merged, that the liquid had developed a nice sturdiness to it, and that, overall, the chowder tasted even better the second day. Maybe there was something to cousin Chuck's three-day method. I'll tinker with the recipe the next time I make it, and the time after that, I'm sure. Who knows? My chowder might end up being pretty complicated. It's the way we Chapin men do it, you know.