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Best Clam Chowder Recipe is Our Family Heirloom


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


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