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SWFE 2018


Chowder, Part 1

By Ronald Holden

If you Google "Clam Chowder," you'll see ads for Progresso soups, about two bucks for an 18.5-ounce can, buck-fifty at Costco. It's not a concentrate, you open it (pull tab, no can opener required), heat it (or not, your call), and (with some level of enthusiasm, anyway) spoon it into your mouth.

Here's what you get from the can: "clam broth" (whatever that is), potatoes, clams, soybean oil, water, modified food starch, and onions. Also small amounts of soy protein concentrate, sugar, salt, cream, butter, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, artificial color, DATEM (an emulsifier that replicates the effects of gluten), natural flavor (whatever that is), dried parsley, dried celery, and yeast extract.

Here's what I tasted: potatoes, potatoes, and even more potatoes. A clam? Very doubtful. The broth? Bitter. The apparent creaminess? Artificially produced by the food starch, soy protein concentrate, and emulsifier.

Yes, I should know better.

But I have to tell you, there's almost nothing in the universe that creates as much argument as the term "chowder." Take the concepts of clams, bacon, milk: not so fast, friend. Almost two decades ago, an intrepid chef and food writer named Jasper White categorized no fewer than 50 specific recipes, half of which used no seafood at all. The very word, chowder, comes from the French chaudière, a kettle used to make soups and stews.

Chowder, then: the basic styles used to be New England (milk), Manhattan (tomatoes), and, for some tastes, corn. Out here on the west coast, we would think of chowder ("chowda") as something from the Atlantic coast, Boston or Cape Cod. Tomatoes? Nevahh!

The first question is how to find the right kind of clams to make chowder. (No, you can't chop up rubber bands and stir them into a pan of warm milk along with some Old Bay, though there are places that might try. And many places whose chowders taste like that was their recipe.) Manila clams, whether from Hood Canal or Canadian waters, are simply too small to be of use.

 Razor clams

Ivar Haglund's chain of seafood bars and restaurants are known for their clams ("Acres of Clams," to be exact). Tens of thousands of customers can't be wrong, can they? The chowder at Ivar's wasn't as creamy as many of the others sampled; it calls itself "Northwest Style" white clam chowder with bacon. The recipe, which Ivar originated in1938, uses sea clams ("considered the best in the world"). It's $8.50 a bowl at the Acres of Clams restaurant on the waterfront ($5 at happy hour); you can also buy this frozen, boil-in-bag for restaurant use, or have Goldbely, the folks who stock restaurant products from lobster rolls to cheesecake, ship you a gift pack of the classic or the alder-smoked salmon style. Also available as a concentrate, like orange juice; works out to a hefty $5 per serving at home.

Anthony's has its own fish company and a string of HomePort restaurants at picturesque waterfront locations around the region; I think my favorite is at Pier 66 in downtown Seattle, where you overlook a small marina, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains, although Kirkland's deck, overlooking Lake Washington, is pretty good, too.

The chowder at Anthony's HomePort on Pier 66 is acceptably satisfying, even if it does use canned clams from the Atlantic. The Anthony's Harbor Lights on Ruston Way in Tacoma serves a version called Nectar Clam, which has a dairy free broth in the style of Rhode Island chowders Three bucks for a cup. Why does this one location serve a different version? Has to do with Anton Barcott, an immigrant from Yugoslavia, who opened the original Harbor Lights here in 1959. When he sold to Anthony's four decades later, he insisted they leave his chowder recipe untouched. Now, Oyster Bill Whitbeck, who spent the last part of his career visiting local chefs on behalf of Taylor Shellfish, grew up in Connecticut and knows as much about clams as he does about oysters, calls the Nectar "a chowder anatomy lesson" because you can see every element: chopped clams, celery, onions. In Rhode Island, they traditionally serve a small pitcher of warm milk alongside Nectar, in case you want to add your own element of dairy. Me, I would have liked to try a few drops of lemon juice.

Duke Moscrip, one of the original investors in Ray's Boathouse, went on to run a chain of moderately priced chowder houses. Duke's Chowder House recipe was inspired by his grandfather, John Fitzgerald Cox; it was brothy and clammy. His own version would be creamier, fragrant with fresh herbs (basil, dill, marjoram), and not as clammy. In the 1980s, Seattle hosted a Chowder Cook-Off for the first time; Duke's won. Today the restaurant serves four versions, in four sizes, or as a sampler in four sizes, but the clam chowder remains the most popular. At its heart are surf clams harvested off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, chopped and individually quick-frozen. The flour is gluten-free, blended specifically for Duke's. The clam stock comes from Custom Culinary's Gold Label line. The bacon is nitrite-free; the dairy element is heavy whipping cream. And no carrots (too sweet). "Stick with celery for crunch," says Duke. The proof, as always, is in the eating. Skip the dusting of pepper, it will mask the subtle taste of clams. And there are plenty of clams in this chowder, big pieces, too.

The chowder, $9.90 for a six-ounce bowl, is served with half a loaf of warm sourdough bread. Here's something else to return to Duke's for: the "Lobster Mobster" chowder, prepared with langostinos and seasoned with a generous glug of Pernod. And here's yet another thing Duke's has got going for itself (and for you!): Veuve Clicquot. By the glass. For $11. (Nothing annoys me more than paying $15 for four ounces of warm bubbles, often icky sweet to mask the unpalatable bitterness.) Veuve Clicquot, on the other hand...I mean, who pours Veuve Clicquot by the glass? For that matter, who else sells Veuve Clicquot by the bottle for $58? My strong recommendation: next time you have dinner at Duke's, skip the cocktails if you must but order a goddamn bottle.

Coming up next month: more chowder on the Waterfront and at the Market!

January 2018

Ronald Holden is a Northwest native who's been writing about local food for over 40 years. His latest book, Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com. He blogs at Cornichon.org and contributes often to Forbes.com.


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