I have been judging events that include chowder for many years now, and all over the country. Even though I was taught to stay
far away from any chowder that didn't have dairy as its' base, I found myself judging just such chowders.
I grew up enjoying New England chowder the way the first Yankee Chef(my grandfather) and the second Yankee Chef(my Dad) classically prepared it. With its' thin(but not too thin) broth tasting of milk or light cream, onions, salt pork (or bacon) and a bay leaf thrown in. That is chowder! If clam chowder was your choice, than whole belly clams have been replaced with clam strips(chopped clam 'necks'). Why not whole belly clams anymore? Simply because of the 'brackish' or grey color they chowder is left with when chopping and adding the "belly" of the clam. Clam broth or bottled clam juice was just as necessary as the proper cracker.
So what is the proper cracker and is there even such a thing? You bet! A lot of chefs will say otherwise ONLY because their chowder is too thick to have any effect on a cracker.
In the early days of chowder preparation, the common cracker was THE cracker to be served with chowder here in New England. It was a quickly baked thin 'biscuit' you could say. Round like a biscuit but only about a half-inch thick. It provided an immediate absorption for the perfectly prepared chowder.
Common crackers were the norm in every restaurant, home and cookbook well into the late-1800s. That is when Crown Pilot crackers really came into their own. The oldest recipe made by Nabisco, starting as the National Biscuit Company, Crown Pilot's had stubborn Yankees to contend with as well, but we eventually caved in to these delightfully crispy crackers and totally replaced the common cracker.
An early Common Cracker
Paul A. Cziko A ship biscuit, purportedly the oldest in the world, is displayed prominently at the maritime museum in Kronborg castle, Elsinore, Denmark. The label tells that this biscuit dates from as early as 1852
Although crackers are served with chowders of all types in New England, it is mostly for the sentiment now because they just sit on top of the extremely thick chowders so often seen and eaten today. I would venture to say that at least 95 % of all chowders made for public consumption everywhere are so thick, a fork is needed, and that is a shame.
I realize times change and the words "thick and creamy" are great advertising adjectives as well as an enticement, but the true New England chowder should be served no thicker than heavy cream. Not artificially thickened with anything, except the starch from the potato and the crumbs of the cracker. At times, maybe a drop or two of melted butter, forming an island on top is desirable as well. many of you may enjoy the thick chowder served up as they do in Hawaii, but not this Yankee.
Now, many restaurants have taken to powdered cream soup bases and even non-dairy coffee creamer so that the shelf life of the chowder will last a few hours in the steam table. I understand this dilemma and even understand not wanting to throw out chowder because it curdled after sitting at 145-degrees F for a few hours. Heck, I am a cheap Yankee.
But the thickness problem and powdered substitutes has taken away the true taste and texture of chowder. I will admit, although, that I have on many occasions added this and that to a chowder, but I simply could not, nor would not, try to pass it off as classic or true New England Chowder. I can't even kiss the cook anymore because I never come across a bay leaf in any chowder I judge, except for one place. the Watershed Tavern, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
I adored their fish chowder and their consistency was spot on. With the texture of the fish, the exact viscosity of the broth and that subtle hint of bay leaf had me running to find the chef who made it. Hoping it was a female chef, the only disappointment through this meal was that the chef was male. Regardless of the absent, physical kiss I could have thrown, my adoration was verbally extended for this fish chowder and I urge anyone in the area to pop over to the Watershed Tavern and give it a try.
I have also noticed a difference in chowders just in the past 20 years as well. Clearly it may be a time issue but salt pork/bacon has been disappearing and that is insanely ludicrous. Small pieces of either addition should be "tried out" before adding the onion. Once the onion is just barely done, the fat is drained off and the remainder of ingredients are cooked proportionately, never forgetting to add the bay leaf. And don't give the old wives tales about the bay leaf as being poisonous. This is simply incorrect. In order for anyone to feel any negative effects of any toxins found in these fragrant herbs, you would have to eat more than 3 quarts of really packed down bay leaves.
Other types of chowders that New Englanders once enjoyed are:
Rhode Island Clam Chowder. The traditional method of preparation deals with a clear broth that originated in Washington County, Rhode Island. No cream, just the broth from the cooking mixed with some clam juice, although some versions have tomato paste added along with carrots, beans or other vegetables.
New Jersey Clam Chowder is much like Rhode Island's chowder but you could say it is a cross between Manhattan and Rhode Island. It usually contains bits of chopped tomatoes, whether it is from diced tomatoes in juice from a can or freshly diced tomatoes, Asparagus, cream and/or Old Bay are generally added as well.
In Florida? Try Minorcan Clam Chowder, with its spicy overtones in a tomato-based broth.
Heck, even Scotland has their version of New England chowder called Cullen Skink.
It uses finnan haddie in lieu of haddock and is absolutely the cat's meow. Above is from uktv.co.uk and it is delicious Skully Skink.
All these chowders in New England can thank John Pease, of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts during the 17th century. He is the first to have put cow's milk in a pot with fish, onions and it is believed potatoes. Cooking it all together, although not officially called chowder, it was the precursor no doubt. I know many of you will say that the French seafarers and fishermen cooked the original chowder in their chaudiere's, a large kettle, and you would be half right. It is true that these fishermen cooked up whatever fish they caught in this large kettles, adding onions and whatever vegetables they had, but it "ain't chowdah" until you add the dairy(at least here in New England).
I may be a sentimentalist, a lover of the past or even an old school type of chef, but when it comes to our chowder, don’t try to sell me an overly thick chowder, don't try to thicken it with roux or even dehydrated potatoes. Don't muddle the true flavor of classic chowder with spices that belong in a Mexican recipe. But at the same time, don't over look the importance of the simplest ingredients as well. I even visited a restaurant who proclaimed their chowder the best in the area, with only chopped clams, dry cream soup base and potatoes. That is it! When I asked the chef where to heck everything else was, he replied that people complained about onion in the chowder, so they removed them. People complained about salt and pepper in the chowder, so they removed them. People complained about any salt pork or bacon in the chowder, so they removed them. My response to those complaints?
EAT SOMETHING ELSE!!
It's Just That Simple!™