East vs. West:
A Search for the Perfect Chowder
by Anne Jennings
The sign over Andy's read "Bait & Tackle Beer Wine Food." We approached the window of the yellow shack, where a sun-beaten woman in her forties stood beside a cash register. "Two bread bowls of chowder and a Sierra Nevada," I said. Marc paid with a twenty and we waited for change. Below us, under the weathered gray boards of the pier, sea lions lounged and barked in the late afternoon sun.
"This is it," I said.
"Nervous?" Marc asked.
"Yeah," I said. "What if it's no good?"
"Chowder's up," called the woman in the shack. I carried my bread bowl to the edge of the pier where I could see the sea lions looking up at me with wistful eyes. I gripped my plastic spoon, closed my eyes, and took a bite.
I have always loved clam chowder, but it wasn't until I came west that I elevated the experience of eating it to an art form, a religion. I have since spent many a happy afternoon on the Santa Cruz pier with a cold bottle of beer and a bread bowl full of chowder, barking sea lions for company. I never worried too much about how the chowder tasted. It was the experience I was after, not the recipe, and I was perfectly happy. But a recent trip up the California coast changed all that.
North of Mendocino, not far from the Oregon border, my husband and I discovered a small town called Shelter Cove, an old fishing port tucked up against the King Range, an hour's drive from the nearest major highway. There, in a little restaurant beside the fish camp, we dined on roasted chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and, a buttery, delicate clam chowder.
"Can this be real?" I asked, as I mooched from Marc's cup. "I've never had clam chowder this good."
"West Coast clam chowder better than East Coast clam chowder?" said Marc. "There's probably some kind of law against that."
"We should do a taste test to compare."
"You mean go to New England?" said Marc.
"Like a pilgrimage," I said. "Returning to the source."
Over the rest of our trip up the coast, I hatched a plan to conduct a bi-coastal inquiry into the mystique of clam chowder. I'd pit the coasts against each other to find out what really makes a good chowder. Is it simply a mixture of potatoes, clams, and cream, or is there something deeper, carried on the ocean breeze?
Chowder, like so many excellent foods, comes from the French. Originally prepared in the fishing villages of Brittany, chowder takes its name from chaudière, a cauldron in which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was cooked "a mess of fish and biscuit with some savoury condiments, a hodge-podge contributed by the fishermen themselves, each of whom in return receives his share of the prepared fish."
Most chowder experts agree that early chowders had the consistency of pudding. Presumably, Breton fisherman brought the recipe with them when they came to fish the waters off Newfoundland. From there, the recipe spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England. Melville devoted a whole chapter of Moby Dick to chowder. "Oh, sweet friends!" says Ishmael, "Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, 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." Ishmael's accounting of ingredients needs no revision; except for its consistency, true chowder has changed little in 200 years.
new england tradition
Two months later, Marc and I were winging our way east, returning to the source, the original home of America's fishy concoction. The first stop on our East Coast Chowder Tour was New Haven, Connecticut, home to my best friend Jessica and her fiancÚ, Thomas. New Haven seemed the appropriate place to start our chowder quest—its citizens are so in love with clams, they eat them on pizza. Jessica recommended the chowder at Sage Bar and Grill, an upscale bistro overlooking the Long Island Sound. I was hoping to get some insight on chowder from Thomas, a native of Boston and a real Yankee—the kind of guy who owns a remote cabin in Maine and knows how to fix up old houses.
"So what's with clam chowder?" I asked him as we sipped Hammer and Nail draft beer. "Is there some kind of connection between clam chowder and New Englanders?"
"It's pretty special stuff," said Thomas.
The waitress, on cue, plunked down four small cauldrons of clam chowder on the table in front of us, and we took up our spoons. Sage's chowder was bisque-like with tiny bits of crunchy celery, fresh parsley, and tender clams, slightly gritty.
"A little sand shows authenticity," said Thomas.
"Why is chowder more delicious if it's served in a little pewter cauldron?"
Thomas stroked his chin. "Must be the whole Paul Revere connection. You know, one if by land, two if by sea."
"Huh?" said Marc. He's Canadian.
"It's the whole cauldron gestalt," Thomas said. "Revolution, freedom, chowder!"
"Hmmm," Jessica said.
"Ah-hah," I said, scribbling furiously.
After sampling a few more Connecticut chowders, I felt sufficiently qualified to approach the mecca of clam chowders, Boston. Here I would answer the question: does history make the chowder?
Marc and I set out early the next morning on the Freedom Trail, hoping to hit Ye Olde Union Oyster House around lunchtime. This establishment calls itself the country's oldest restaurant. Patrons (tourists mostly) slurp down 20 gallons of clam chowder a day in booths lit by ship lanterns and swagged with red, white, and blue banners.
Ye Olde Union's chowder came in a plain white cup. "Is that the taste of freedom?" Marc asked after his first bite. The chowder was gray, floury, gummy, inoffensive, and flavorless. In fact, the only good thing about it was the free corn bread that came on the side. Apparently, years of tradition don't equal a pleasant dining experience.
Still yearning for satisfaction, we headed over to the Times Irish Restaurant and Pub near the Boston aquarium. The Times was the winner of the 2002 Boston Chowderfest, so our expectations were high. The decor was sports bar all the way: hip-hop and R&B on the radio, a baseball game on television. The waitresses spoke in a delightful Irish brogue.
"Someone seein' to yas?" asked our server, a dark-haired girl who made "This way to the bathroom" sound like an aria.
"Did Paul Revere ever eat here?" I asked.
"No, love, we've only been here since 1997."
So much for history. We ordered clam chowder and Sam Adams Summer Ale. The chowder came in an onion soup crock, along with the award-winning recipe on a printed brochure. Boston's favorite chowder was thick and creamy. For my taste, a little too creamy. The best chowders we had tasted so far on our East/West tour were smooth and buttery, bordering on a thin consistency. Too much flour and cream seemed to gum up the works. Marc disagreed.
"I like it," he said, scraping the last bite of Times' chowder from the crock. "It sticks to your ribs."
"This chowder will please most of the people most of the time," I said.
"Yeah," said Marc, "It's like Merlot."
We had better luck on Cape Ann at the Portside Chowder House-n-Grille in Rockport, Massachusetts. Rockport itself is worth the drive for its quirky art galleries and window boxes full of petunias and pansies. Portside Chowder House-n-Grille has the added benefit of being located next to Helmut's Strudel Shop (your choice of cheese, cherry, or apple). We took our to-go cups and sat on the wharf beside a tall ship, her lines clacking against the masts in the brisk wind. The chowder was unassuming—buttery yellow, just the right amount of sand, celery, and potatoes, a bay leaf floating in the cup, sailboats bobbing in the small, rock-bound harbor.
I had sampled nine New England clam chowders. Pretty good for a five-day trip.
"We can go home now," I said.
"Let's get some strudel first," said Marc.
Next stop: Santa Cruz, California, home of the Ideal Bar & Grill, winner of the 2002 West Coast Chowderfest. Just how would Ideal's chowder measure up to the Times' winning East Coast chowder? Ideal refused to give out the prize-winning recipe, so Marc and I had to rely on our now expertly attuned palates.
Nestled between the Santa Cruz Wharf and the boardwalk, a few feet from the surf, the Ideal Bar & Grill is a true beach joint. The blonde waitresses look like they just came in from surfing. Outside, shirtless guys play beach volleyball, even in the waning days of chilly October. We quickly put away a bowl of buttery chowder full of tender clams, potatoes, and celery—and just the tiniest bit of sandy grit. As I ate, I felt a peppery after-bite in my mouth; something told me the secret ingredient had something to do with Tabasco, paprika, cayenne, some spicy south-of-the-border flavor creeping in. Though definitely thickened with flour, the Ideal's chowder had none of that gooey quality I'd noted at the Times. The only thing lacking in the Ideal experience was presentation—no red, white, and blue swags on the walls, no pewter cauldrons, no hearty crocks—just a plain white, cafeteria-style bowl.
Okay, I'll say it. I missed the pewter cauldrons. I missed the tall ships bobbing in the harbor. Like all things California, the Ideal chowder had its own special flair, yet lacked substance, tradition. As we left the Ideal, I caught a glimpse of the lemon-yellow shack at the far end of the pier. Now that I'd had the best of the best, could my simple bread bowl of chowder from Andy's still measure up?
back at andy's
I lifted the plastic spoon to my mouth, the bread bowl warm in my left palm. The first waves of taste washed over my tongue. Tinny, I thought, metallic-tasting. Could this have come from a can? No celery, I thought. Rubbery clams. As I ate, I noticed how the bread bowl was disintegrating into the chowder. Ishmael would never have rhapsodized over this soggy mush.
"Well?" said Marc.
"I've had better," I said. I threw half the bread bowl to the sea gulls and the other half in the trash.
Results of Anne's Taste Test|
Top Chowders in the United States
- Portside Chowder House-n-Grille, Rockport, Massachusetts
- Mario's Restaurant, Shelter Cove, California
- Sage Bar and Grille, New Haven, Connecticut
- Ideal Bar & Grill, Santa Cruz, California
With my bi-coastal pilgrimage had come certain hard truths. Yes, chowder does taste better beside the ocean. But chowder is more than history, more than a bracing wind and the smell of salt air. Ingredients matter. Somewhere between East and West, between recipe and atmosphere, hovers the perfect chowder.
Originally from Gainesville, Florida, Anne Jennings now lives and writes in San Jose, California. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize, and her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA.