Great Grampa Scott's Clam Chowder
The Robinson family tree leans
If you want to pick a fight, don't talk to me about politics or religion. There's nothing much there I'd defend with my life. I don't care a lot for cars or sports or power tools. I'll eat what you serve me, wear what you knit me and go where you take me. I usually can't tell Brand A from Brand X and I think my mother actually did wear army shoes once during the war. No, it's pretty hard to rile me up on most topics. Just don't tell me you know chowder.
You don't know chowder, I know chowder. My whole family knows chowder. It's in our blood.
As far as I can determine, the earliest written record of our family's milk-based shellfish consumption is great-grampa John Scott's recipe for quahog chowder. John Scott is my father John Brewster's maternal grandfather. He married Nina who begat Flossie, the grandmother who married Jake Robinson, and Em, my father's uncle who 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. There were a lot of interesting names back then, but you'd expect that of people who ate things called "quahogs" (say CO-hogs).
According to my mother Phyllis, who keeps track of these things, 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 grampa 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. Grampa figured that after 30 years turning a steering wheel the wrong way, he'd never learn to do it correctly.
When 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 in South Dartmouth 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 and dad's still works out on his treadmill every morning. When I was little, we spent time each summer at either my father's family's camp or my mother's family's camp on Cape Cod. Hoping to one-up my forebears, I managed to have both a crummy heart and asthma. It never occurred to me, until I started writing this article today, why I've always preferred the Seacoast. Since I live near the ocean year round, I figure I'll survive to be about 170. And each summer, just to be safe, we all still go to the Cape.
So where was I? Oh, yes, quahogs. In one of my earliest memories, I'm sitting in a wooden boat which my father is towing as he wades along the mucky clam flats, tossing in these giant clams. When I mentioned this image to my mother last week, she went right to the photo album and pulled out the scene. In the picture I'm just on the warm side of one year old and wearing a captain's cap. She says we were at Pochasset near her parent's camp, which I remember mostly for the mountain of clam, quahog, oyster, muscle and scallop shells that rose into the sky from the sandy back yard. I remember watching my mother's father Clement and the other men slitting open the colorful serrated mouths of the scallops, jerking the top shells back, and slicing the wet scallop hinge meat out as the pitiful oozy animals dropped into the sand. They would do that, flicking the meat into a pan of water and flipping the shells into the heap as if the whole process was a single movement. Years later my 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 really understood the power of clams.
We scalloped in October, when scallop season was on. Earlier it was quahogs, or "little necks", and then clams, incredible awesome long black-necked clams that we found by running along the stinky flats at low tide until one would squirt its telltale stream into the air. Then we fell to our knees scooping furiously in the black mud with the biggest shell we owned and harvested the beast. If the shell fit inside the brass ring my father always carried, we'd fling the seed clam back into the ocean. The "keepers" went into the bucket, a bushel was legal, and the bucket went to camp.
I don't make clam chowder often now, but I do make the best. We three boys were spoiled, my mother says, by growing up among the freshest most tender clams. Even around here, you can hardly find them any more. When you've feasted on nectar, its hard to settle for fruit juice.
Aunt Grace, my mother's sister who still has the camp at Gray Gables just over the Bourne Bridge at the Cape, still keeps her shellfish license. She likes to let the freshly-dug long necks work out the grit, and leaves them in salt water in the sink all night with corn meal which the clams ingest.
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. where hundreds of gallons of less-than-perfect mixtures seem to please the crowds. I smile. Not bad, I say, but I'm just being polite. If you aren't related to me, you don't make chowder.
I almost got into a fist fight with a waiter in Portsmouth once when he told me the restaurant's clam chowder was "home made." It took a few days of stalking the trash cans in the alley, but eventually I found what I was looking for and marched back into the restaurant with a massive can of Snow's Clam Chowder in hand. The waiter admitted they used tinned chowder "as a base." I went nuts. "What do you add, salt?" I sneered.
Real chowder requires fresh clams, preferably dug by you within hours of eating. You want to grind only the big tougher clams and keep the smaller tasty ones whole. Real clam chowder is crammed full of obscene little clams with their necks and stomachs intact. It is not interspersed with tiny pinkish flecks of rubbery shellfish matter. That's quahog chowder.
In real clam chowder The 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 89. I use bacon. 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. You only add the milk at the very last minute and you never never put in a thickener of any kind. There is an eccentric branch of our family that occasionally uses cream instead of milk. I love them, but they're wrong. Clam chowder is thin and milky. It is all about clams and everything in it is there to honor the clam.
Clams are primal things, made of mud, made to remind us where we come from and where we go. I never met great grampa Scott, 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. After he retired, Grampa Scott moved to Upton. My mother and father attended that church and were married there years later. I was baptized there in what felt to me, at the time, like a bowl of warm chowder.
Our family is short on heirlooms. We've consistently managed not 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.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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