My son, who lives in Arkansas, has a taste for New England clam chowder. Early this year he learned, via the Internet, there was to be a Clam Chowder Cook-off in Newport, R.I., on the second of June. He thought he’d like to attend and asked me to join him.
Thoughts of our experience at the International Barbecue we attended in Memphis a few years ago arose. We went there expecting to sample all kinds of great barbecue. We found out that all the goodies were for judging, not for visitors. Reminded of this disappointment he decided we should make our own plan to find our choice for “best” clam chowder.
So, armed with the Fanny Farmer recipe for New England clam chowder (see below) we set out.
3-4 cups steamer or chowder clams, in their juice or broth
1 onion, chopped fine
1.5 inch cube salt pork, diced
2 tsp. flour
3 med. potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups milk
3 Tbs.. butter
We weren’t too clear about the taste of great chowder, but we were sure we’d recognize it.
We were, however, clear about service. Our server should appear within 30 seconds of our seating. A successful restaurant consultant we know had told us that this was crucial for both the restaurant and the customer.
Our first stop was the Atlantic Sea Grill in Acton. Greg, our server, arrived within 30 seconds. The chowder was superb. We decided this was the taste we were seeking. It would be the standard used to judge all others. The recipe was similar to Fanny’s without the salt pork and half & half instead of milk and the clams (Quahogs), finely chopped.
The next day we visited Boston and took the “Duck Tour” (Web site Boston Duck Tours) — the amphibious vehicles from WW II one sees around the city. After a very entertaining tour, we trekked over to the Union Oyster House (circa 1826). There was no 30-second rule here. The chowder belied the reputation of the house. According to their recipe, it included a number of extra ingredients (not included in our ‘standard’) such as celery and Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces. The soup was not as creamy as the standard, the potatoes outnumbered the clams and some of the clam bits were chewy. We know that some people like their clams chewy just as some people eat fish bones; we don’t care for either practice.
From Boston we went on to Cape Cod (or is it “The” Cape?) to get a close look at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and see a Cape Cod League baseball game. We struck out at the institute. We missed the lectures and the museum was closed (on Mondays). The baseball game was fun. A good game in a great setting: a cool, sunny summer evening.
From the game we went to The Seafood Ketch in Hyannis. The locals recommended it. Unfortunately the clam chowder was below standard and the service was by committee. The recipe was supposed to be secret but we managed to find out that it included most of the ingredients used by the Oyster House, plus bacon bits. The flavor was interesting but the soup was almost identical to that of the Oyster House.
The next day we went to Nantucket to check on our heritage. We saw our ancestor’s home and went to the Quaker Meeting house where our forebears worshipped. We learned that The Friends Society did not exist in the early years of the Nantucket settlement but eventually arrived and flourished. We thought the lady who was enlightening us was a Quaker. She denied that impression and advised us she was a “lapsed Unitarian.”
From there we went to the Atlantic Café, on the waterfront, where were served by Savannah, a woman who commutes between Key West and Nantucket. We would characterize her as a Southern belle, that is: friendly and relaxed. Thirty seconds for anything is not her bag. Regardless, we wished the chowder were as welcoming. We didn’t inquire about the recipe but our conclusion was that the soup came from a can. It was “ordinary.” We expected much more. On the other hand, the french fries were absolutely perfect.
Back on the mainland we headed for Portsmouth, N.H., and a voyage, both interesting and refreshing, to the Isles of Shoals on the M/V Thomas Laughton. As the temperature was hovering around 97 degrees, a cool boat trip was a great idea.
At first glance the boat seemed old and unimpressive. On board it is a different story. The interior has the luxury of the “old days.” The main lounge, with its large windows and period décor, is the coolest and most comfortable place on the boat.
The chowder, served in cartons over the counter, is prepared by the Portsmouth Chowder Co. It was about as good as one can expect. It tasted as though it was made according to our standard: more clams than potatoes, creamy and no hokey extras.
Our week ended with a visit to the Peabody-Essex museum in Salem. Getting there is not half the fun. But the trip is well worth the effort.
The museum is one huge exhibit of paintings, personalities, ships, furnishings and memorabilia, including a complete Chinese house, of the fruits of commerce between Salem and the Orient in the 19th century. There are the customary special art exhibits but the extravagance and beauty of the Orient prevails.
Afterwards it was off to Tom Shea’s on Route 133 in Essex. Because of the high praise we had heard, we entered with some skepticism. Here, however, everything we heard came true. Joanie was waiting for us. This chowder won the gonfalon. It had the perfect creaminess (using half & half); clams galore chopped extremely fine, understated potatoes and no gimmicks; just a simple recipe with the perfect aroma (a smell of clams, not fish).
This was our graduation party. If it hadn’t been for the huge bowl full of “cultivated mussels” we’d have had the chowder for dessert.
How does the song go?
Who threw the half & half into Tom Shea’s Chowder?
Nobody answered, so we hollered all the louder.
‘Tis a lovely Irish trick
And we could kiss the Mick,