Chowdah, Coast to Coast

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New England Clam Chowder was noticeably absent from my Midwestern childhood. After all, the nearest clams to the Midwest that were not shipped or flown in were found in nature, at least 600 miles away. The Midwest is corn country. We have fresh corn. If we eat chowder, it is made of corn. And that chowder is yellow. This is hardly what the Puritans had in mind with their creamy masterpiece.

If you really wanted clam chowder in fly-over country (or as we called it, the Mid-Best), you could try the canned variety. The tinny, brackish bowl of grey with chewing gum bits and perplexingly geometric potatoes was hardly a substitute for the real thing. You can only imagine the true chowder’s revelatory impact on the tongue of the innocent Midwesterner–a cream-based, salty, tender, vibrant, rich restorative. It was ecstasy–as in the manner of St. Theresa.

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The chowder purists of New England, like their Puritanical ancestors, insist upon a brief list of ingredients in their “chowdah”–clams, stock, cream, onions, and potatoes. The ecstasy was not included nor probably appreciated. One can almost imagine Sam Adams himself declaring “A plain soup, for a plain people.”

Legal Seafoods, a Boston-based restaurant that in recent years has expanded along the East Coast, makes the definitive New England Clam Chowder. A family business now in its third generation, Legal strives to support local fisheries and fisherman in their operation, often supporting sustainable fishing efforts. Their flagship clam chowder has been served at presidential inaugurations since the 1980’s. They have expanded over the years to a behemoth 30+ locations, but it is one of the few chains I can happily support.

Legal doesn’t mess with success. They use quality ingredients that make this New England Clam Chowder tops for me. In the words of David Chase, voiced by his character Uncle “Junior” Soprano, this soup “comes heavy, or not at all.” Cream is part of the base, and if you are a 2% milk person, you are going to notice the milk fat immediately. Then you are going to wonder why you have denied yourself cream your whole life. Add in butter, onions sauteed in salt pork fat, clam juice simmered with garlic, potatoes cubed, and toothsome fleshy Littleneck clams with a hit of black pepper and oyster crackers adrift in the cup, and you have what I think is a perfect chowder. Legal offers a light version to satisfy the American obsession with no-flavor, non-fat cuisine. It is fine if you are into that self-flagellation. (Same goes for pointless light beer, I suppose. Someone has to eat and drink it. And that someone is not me.)

There are other claimants to the chowder throne, even within New England. They are the Voldemort’s of chowder–the red variations of Rhode Island and Manhattan. They are not the inspiration for this essay. So perplexing is the tomato and broth based chowder that certainly it is this reason–and not religious conviction–that the pilgrims told Roger Williams to get out of the settlement and go found Rhode Island, taking his septic, red brine with him. Maine in fact banned the inclusion of tomato in clam chowder (can a state actually do that?) in the 1840’s to prevent its return to the land of cream-based chowder. But by then, New Englanders were off to settle America, and new immigrants to the East Coast would follow them.

No traveler is left unchanged by their travel. And clam chowder is no exception. As the settler’s spirit moved across the American frontier, taking the memories of their sea breeze and soup with them, the chowder was transfigured by the American Experience. By the time the settlers and immigrants got to the ends of America, to the place where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific for the first time–the Pacific Northwest and her Puget Sound–the settler’s palate had gathered up the flavors of the the heartland, the terrior that includes aromatic veggies and bacon.

One of those immigrants to the Pacific Northwest was Ivar Haglund. Old Iver was a folk singer and an adventurer in the spirit of Mark Twain. Entrepreneurial, he founded an tourist trap aquarium on Elliott Bay on the Seattle waterfront. However, by the 1940’s, his seafood stand was doing better business, and he focused his efforts on his restaurant, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, with outlandish and pun-riddled slogans (“Keep Clam and Carry On!) and encouraged locals to engorge lazy seagulls with his french fries off of Pier 54.

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The clam chowder of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t really have an official name. I have seen it as “Ivar’s Puget Sound Clam Chowder,” “Northwest Clam Chowder,” “Seattle Clam Chowder,” and so on. How Pacific of the west coast, so laid-back, so unassuming, that they can’t be bothered to give this variation an official handle. What I have found consistently in the Pac-Northwest varieties is a more pronounced use of celery, onions (sometimes green onions) and smokey bacon added into the traditional mix of New England ingredients. What you end up with, is a wholly unique flavor adapted to the overcast, cool and calm Pacific coast.

Ivar’s seems to be available day-long–from the early hours on the morning ferry boat ride to the Olympic Peninsula to the late-night line to ward off an impending hangover.

Those varieties of the clam chowder, the foundational New England Clam Chowder and her cross-continental cousin in the Pacific Northwest, accomplish the task for their climate. They provide the weary with a cauldron of dense warmth that will reach the coldest bone. As for this traveler, I seek out a reunion with a cup or bowl of the stuff often. It is the first order of business when arriving in Boston or Seattle, and when I depart, I think longingly toward the next encounter with this American classic, in its rightful setting–whether in the east or the west.

Legal’s Chowdah Photo credit: Jack Amick / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Ivar’s Chowder  Photo credit: I am Jeffrey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ivar’s Seagulls Photo credit: Laurent Bugnion / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SASt.

Teresa’s Ecstasy Photo credit: profzucker / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Post-Script: Ivar’s Acres of Clams, his restaurant, takes its name from the folk song, “The Old Settler’s Song.” Ivar surely could have played the tune on command:

(This tune instantly transports me to the Puget Sound, leaving that spinal chill, and a slight tear in my eyes for one of my favorite places in the world.)

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