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A humble little bowl

Clam Chowder - The Issue of Food
Clam Chowder - The Issue of Food

A humble little bowl

THERE ARE FEW DISHES more quintessentially New England than clam chowder. The humble fish stew has nourished the residents of this region for many centuries, a traditional seafarer’s fare that was itself a product of early globalization and technology, brewed in a cultural melting pot, which reinvented itself anew with every stir of the wooden spoon.

Clam chowder resides deep in Yankee DNA. Before they sought out the white whale, Queequeg and Ishmael first searched the inns of Nantucket for the perfect bowl. Their quest fills an entire chapter of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” Henry David Thoreau indulged in bowls after a stroll around Walden Pond. At Legal Sea Foods on Long Wharf, a bowl costs $8.95.


Its culinary origins are as cloudy as the broth. Perhaps it comes from the coast of Wales. Or Portuguese sailors. Or France’s Brittany shoals. The holy trinity of fish, fat, and water has been a cook’s go-to meal for a very long time. We do know that the meal was a staple on ships of sail, easy to make with whatever ingredients were at hand. It was shared by crews made up of sailors from all over the world, speaking the common language of food.

Of course, food itself was central to their world, the sustenance they needed to get through the grueling workday and the precious cargo that they heaved in over the gunwales to salt, store, and sell back home. Nutrition from the sea was fuel and fortune, and the engine of growth for a region that was global in its ambition.

Chowder is still very much a product of time and place. Manhattanites make it with tomato. Floridians like it spicy. The broth is clear in Rhode Island. And Mainers use lobster stock, naturally. Today, the variations are as endless as the sources of ingredients. High-end chowders are made with truffle oils and exotic fishes, while the Campbell’s soup company sells countless cans of it every year.


On Long Wharf, the ingredients for the classic dish are pedestrian enough: potatoes, clams, cream, salt pork, flour, and a few other fixings. The components come to the pot from all across the country — Northern Maine and Southern California, North Dakota and Vermont, the Carolinas and the Massachusetts mudflats, with spices from Brazil and Sicily.

While the history of the dish tells us a lot about where we came from, unpacking the contents of a single bowl offers a microcosm of our food network today — the complexity and interdependence of its logistics, the technologies that make it possible, and the future of its sustainability.

In this special package of Ideas & Opinion, we explore the theme of food, from its politics to its human connections. This conversation also continues online and on social media with #foodthink. Dig in!


ALEX KINGSBURY, Deputy Ideas Editor

From ‘The New Legal Sea Foods Cookbook’

Here’s one way to make a bowl:

6pounds Littleneck clams
1garlic clove
1cup water
pounds salt park, finely chopped
2cups chopped onions
3tablespoons flour
3cups fish stock
1 ½pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
2cups whipping cream
oyster crackers (optional)

1. Scrub clams well under cold running water. Place in a large pot along with garlic and water. Steam clams just until opened, about 6 to 10 minutes, depending on their size. Drain and shell clams, reserving broth (there should be about 4 cups). Mince clam flesh and set aside. Strain clam broth through cheesecloth and set aside.


2. In a large soup pot, fry salt pork over medium heat until crisp. Remove cracklings and set aside. Add onions and saute in fat over medium heat, stirring frequently, until cooked through but not browned, about 6 minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add reserved clam broth and fish stock and whisk to remove any flour lumps.

3. Bring liquid to boil, add potatoes, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in reserved clams, salt pork cracklings and cream. Heat chowder until hot. Serve in large soup bowls with oyster crackers, if desired.