Best Clam Chowder Recipe is Our Family Heirloom
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

If it’s thick, taste’s like Snows, looks like an art project or contains anytthing but fresh clams, potatoes, onions, water and milk – it ain’t ours. A New England native reveals the puritanical truth about making clam chowder the way God intended, and throws in a little family history to boot. (Click for history and rec,ipte below)


Digging into other people’s past, I tend to neglect my own. So this year as the holidays approach, I humbly pass on the historic Robinson clam chowder recipe to the misguided citizens of the Seacoast. Except for clams, most of our family food traditions can be traced to any Betty Crocker cookbook. Our Thanksgiving dinner is cut from a Norman Rockwell painting. Christmas looks the same if you swap the turkey for a ham.

When I was a kid we celebrated New Year’s Eve around a large raw cabbage pierced with toothpicks. At the end of each toothpick was a Vienna sausage plucked fresh from the can. My father carved a circular hole in the top of the cabbage, wedged a little tin of Sterno ™ in the hole and lit the fuel on fire. We roasted the cocktail wieners over the crackling fire, ate a few shrimp, watched the ball drop in Times Square and went to bed. For us, that was a big night.

Best New England Clam Chowder is Simple and Milky

I’m not sure where the cabbage tradition came from -- maybe Parade Magazine. It looked a little like Sputnik when the sausages were gone, so maybe it had something to do with the Space Race. I assume the cabbage went into a cole slaw, but like Santa Claus filling stockings, I never saw it happen.

It’s not like we don’t have history. On the paternal side, I’m told, our family walked right off the Mayflower. If that’s true, it explains why the one thing our family does better than anyone is clam chowder. If you think the Pilgrims ate Butterball ™ turkeys, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies, check their diaries.

At the risk of offending everyone in town, you guys don't know chowder. We know chowder. I was born in Massachusetts, summered on Cape Cod, and it runs in our blood.

As far as I can determine, our earliest written chowder record comes from great-Grampa John Scott's recipe for quahogs (say CO-hogs) that has been adapted here. John Scotta was my father John Brewster Robinson's maternal grandfather. He married Nina who begat Flossie, the grandmother who married Jake Robinson, my father’s father. Em, my father's uncle, married "Pearl" Stearns. Dad's aunt was actually called "Big Pearl" to keep her separate from her daughter "Little Pearl" whom we always knew as Tinker. Tinker married Karl whom we all call Joe. Em built the cottage on Cape Cod where Tinker and Joe now reside. The clams also live at the Cape.



Clam Legacy of  Great-Grampa Scott

According to my mother Phyllis, who keeps track of these things, great-Grampa Scott was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, but moved to Western Massachusetts as a young laborer to blast the famous Hoosic Tunnel out of solid rock, linking the East and West by railroad. Dad says he used to crow about how the construction teams dug in from both sides simultaneously, and when the two crews met in the middle of the mountain, their separate tunnels were just half an inch apart.

That done, he married Nina and settled in as a Worcester firefighter riding the back wheel of a great horse drawn hook and ladder rig. According to family legend, John Scott never learned to drive an automobile because the wheel in his fire engine required him to turn left in order to swing the ladder right. He figured that after 30 years turning a steering wheel the wrong way, he'd never learn to do it correctly.

best_clam_chowder_02When he retired in 1921 aged 65, John Scott was told his years were numbered due to a heart condition, so from April to October, he lived on the ocean near Cape Cod. When my father was young, due to his asthma, he moved from his parent's family farm in western Mass. to live with Grampa and Gram Scott. Apparently the salt air did its work because John Scott lived to age 89. Dad still works out on his treadmill every morning at age 87. When I was little, we spent time each summer at either my father's rustic family camp or my mother's rustic family camp on Cape Cod. Her father was from Ireland, but that’s a story for another holiday.

In one of my earliest memories, I'm sitting in a wooden boat that my father is towing as he wades along the mucky clam flats, tossing in these giant bivalves. When I mentioned this image to my mother, she went right to the photo album and pulled out the scene. In the fuzzy picture I'm just on the tepid side of two years old and wearing a captain's cap. She says we were at Pochasset near her parent's camp, which I remember mostly for the mountains of clam, quahog, oyster, muscle and scallop shells that rose into the sky from the sandy back yard.

Years later my archeologist brother Brian discovered a 5,000 year old Indian skeleton buried under the clam flats of Seabrook, NH. The dusty outline of the bones remained, he said, because the burial lay beneath a great mound of discarded shells. The limestone, you see, had preserved it. That's when I first understood the power of clams.



Best_clam_chowder_01 J. Dennis Robinson Family photo

Do not bend the rules

I don't make clam chowder often these days, but I do make the best. We three boys were spoiled, my mother says, by growing up among the freshest tenderest clams, second only to those of Ipswich. Aunt Grace, my mother's sister who had a cottage just over the Bourne Bridge still keeps her shellfish license. She leaves the freshly dug long necks in the kitchen sink in salt water all night, feeding them corn meal, which they ingest to work out most of the grit. As all puritans know – grit happens – and you just live with it.

There are a thousand ways to make clam chowder wrong. I've tasted so many, even at the great chowder festivals they hold around here each year. Hundreds of gallons of less-than-perfect concoctions seem to please the crowds. I smile. Not bad, I say, but I'm just being polite. Anyone who gets their clams from a can, or uses tinned chowder as "a base", or touches an ounce of thickener, or slips in anything but onions, potatoes and clams is not related to me.

You want to grind only the big tougher New England clams or the little necks and keep the smaller tasty ones whole. Real clam chowder is crammed full of obscene clams with their dark "necks" and stomachs intact. It is not interspersed with tiny pinkish flecks of rubbery shellfish matter that look and taste like chopped pencil eraser.

The fresh potatoes and onions are cooked in the broth of the clams which you first steam open. great-Grampa Scott had a heart condition, greased the skillet with pork fat, and lived to be an old codger. I fry three strips of bacon to grease the pan, then remove the bacon meat. There are no bacon bits in clam chowder.

You do not add spices beyond pepper and salt. You do not add tomatoes, colorful vegetables, sprigs of this or that. You do not add fish, things that look like fish, or other shellfish, especially lobster. That is called seafood chowder. Corn is for corn chowder. Every precious clam is prepared by hand, the shells rubbed free of sand, the cooked necks skinned.

It is permissible to make the "stock" a day early, but don’t add the milk. You add milk (not skim, reduced fat or milk substitutes) at the very last minute and – I repeat -- you never-ever put in a thickener of any kind. If your spoon stands up in the mixture, or the surface wrinkles like lava, give it to the dogs. There is an eccentric branch of our family that occasionally uses cream instead of milk. I love them, but they're wrong. My younger brother Jeff is allowed to add a pat of butter, but must then do the dishes. Clam chowder is thin and gray and milky, the way God and our forefathers intended. It is all about clams, and everything in it is there to honor the clam. This ancient recipe requires puritanical compliance to the rules. It is not about you. If you want to be creative, make a casserole.

Clams are primal things, made of mud to remind us where we come from, and where we will all return. I never met great-Grampa Scott. He had gone to mud before I arrived, but I know he'd agree. His recipe was first printed in the 1930s, in a cookbook to raise money for the Upton, Massachusetts Congregational Church. He moved to Upton after he retired from the fire department. My mother and father attended that church and were married there years later. I was baptized there in what was likely a bowl of warm chowder.

Our working class family is short on heirlooms. We've consistently failed to accumulate wealth and property. We have no titles, major medals, patents, presidential citations, framed portraits or fine crystal. We don't even have great furniture. But long after such trinkets are gone to dust and rust, people who look uncomfortably like us will be living long lives somewhere near the ocean making the world’s best clam chowder – and smiling politely at those who don’t.

Ipswich clam photo by Karen Hawkins

Copyright © 1997, 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. This article may not reprinted in whole or in part without expressed written consent of the author. Robinson is editor /owner of the history web site



Great-Grampa Scott's Best New England Clam Chowder Recipe

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Wash clam exterior shells vigorously to remove outside grit. You may want to let clams sit in seawater ovenight in corn meal to work out inner grit.

Steam 4-6 pounds of freshly dug New England clams in an 1-2 inches
of water in large container. SAVE clam broth!

Remove clams right after they open. Remove clams from shells and clean skin from "necks".

Grind large clams, save any liquid. Keep smaller tender clams whole.

Add water, if needed, to clam juice to make one quart. Boil 1 quart of diced potatoes in clam juice until potatoes are nearly done.

Dice 3 slices of fat salt pork (or use bacon). Fry until crispy. Remove bacon.

Cut 3 medium-sized onions into pieces and fry in pork (or bacon) fat.

Add entire contents of pan with pork and onions to mixture of potatoes and clam juice. Add ground and whole clams. Cook until tender.

When ready, add 1 quart milk, cook to boiling boil and instantly remove from heat. Reduce heat to simmer.

Add small pat of butter if you like to top of bowl. Salt and pepper to taste, but remember best sea salt flavor comes from clams.

Serve right away or any time. Warmed up next day tastes even better.

Quahog alternative: Follow same process with 2 dozen quahogs, but forget soaking and grind all meat.

(c) J. Dennis Robinson at and the Robinson Family. All rights reserved.