By Cara Nicoletti
In the opening chapters of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ishmael spends his final nights before setting sail aboard the Pequod at the Spouter Inn preparing for his years-long journey at sea. Part of such preparation includes readying oneself for the inevitable periods of dullness and isolation from the rest of the world’s news, finances, friends, and families. This feeling of isolation in which “you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves” can prove so intense that “everything resolves you into languor.” It is not so bad, though, this whaling existence, for “a sublime uneventfulness invests you.” Simple thoughts of what to prepare for dinner are burdens spared the sailor–they have other things to dwell on–since “all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.”
Perhaps it is because of this dullness—a dullness that extends itself specifically to food—that the only meals mentioned in detail throughout the entire novel are meals eaten before the crew even steps on board their ship. It is at the Spouter Inn the night before setting sail that Ishmael eats a bowl of clam and cod chowder so good, four entire pages are devoted to the experience.
“Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word “cod” with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savory steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod- chowder was placed before us.”
Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my father’s soul (or just a damp day outside), he likes to make a heaping pot of his famous chowder. Although we’re from New England where chowder is traditionally made with heavy cream and clams, my father’s recipe calls for a thinner broth and the rich flavor of of salt pork and spicy Portuguese sausage. It is the best I’ve had, and I’d certainly prefer this chowder recipe to any other before three deck-swabbing years fueled by moldy biscuits and watery beer.
CLAM CHOWDER FOR WHALING
WITH SPICY PORK SAUSAGE
Serves 8 people (+/- depending on how much milk or cream you add)
- 2 medium Vidalia onions, diced
- 2.5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (half a 5 pound bag…duh), chopped into half-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 quarts steamer clams with snouts
- 2 cups of linguica (This is a spicy Portuguese sausage. If you can’t find it go with chorizo, but do try to find the linguica. There is no flavor comparison between the two.)
- 2 ears sweet corn (Frozen corn is fine. My dad won’t use it because of many a truly horrifying childhood dinner involved cans of creamed corn, but good fresh corn is nearly impossible to come by this time of year so we’ll make do). If you use frozen corn add about 2 cups.
- Dash of thyme
- Dash of cayenne
- Generous amount of ground black pepper
- Sea salt
- Whole milk
- Light cream
- Flour (Only if you want a thicker New England style broth—I say go without.)
- Oyster crackers
- The hardest part of this recipe is getting the clams clean. Nothing will take your appetite away quite like biting down onto a sandy clam, though, so the labor of cleaning them is worth it. Throw away any clams with shells that are closed tightly or cracked. Submerge the clams in a pot of cold water and let them soak. Continue to change the water over a period of about 3 hours until the water you dump into the sink is running clear. If they’re especially tricky you may want to try adding black pepper to the pot to make them sneeze the sand out (really!).
- Once the clams are clean, bring the water and the clams to a boil, then turn off the heat. The shells should all be open by this time. If not, continue boiling.
- Take the clams from the water, and save the water. Remove the clams from the shells and take off the sheath that covers the snouts. Put clams to the side.
- Boil the cubed potatoes in the clam broth until half cooked (still a bit firm—don’t overcook!). They will cook some more once in the stock.
- In a large pot, sauté the linguica in the butter and olive oil. Remove from pan when brown and crackly—put aside for later use. Cook the onions in the pan drippings from the pork until they are translucent. Drain off some of the remaining grease.
- Add onions, clams, and some of the pork cracklings, the corn, salt, pepper, cayenne to the pot with the stock and potatoes and bring all the ingredients to a boil. My dad likes to then put the chowder into the fridge and let it sit for a few hours before serving so that all the flavors really marry together, but if you don’t have the time it’s no big deal.
- Heat milk and cream in a separate pan (equal parts according to how many bowls you’ll be dishing out). Reheat the stock and ladle into individual bowls, adding the milk/cream mixture as desired. Top off with pork cracklings and parsley and serve with oyster crackers (N.B. if you do desire a thicker soup add flour to stock to taste, but again, I recommend not doing this, I think the flour dulls the flavor).
We knew it would be a great day when we woke up, stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee and found a huge pot of “sneezing clams” in the kitchen sink. It usually meant it was raining and even though we had 6 kids to entertain without the beach, we didn’t care because we knew Uncle Nic’s chowder was on the menu. Thanks for putting it in writing. Maybe someday I will get the up the courage to try cooking it myself. But for now I’ll just keep hoping for a rainy summer day with the family in Little Compton.
Again, a very interesting story and recipe. The history places a very human side to what the fisherman experienced. The idea of using the Portuguese sausage sounds delicious. I never thought to use it in chowder.
I enjoy reading story behind the recipe. Keep writing them.