Friday, November 22, 2013


Fish Chowder

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), Cross Creek (1942; rpt. New York: Collier Books, 1987), p. 229:
It was Ed too who taught me to make a fish chowder that makes a poor thing of any New England chowder. Ed's was a virginal chowder, uncorrupted by such alien elements as peas, corn and tomatoes. I weaken now and then and serve large baked sea-bass or red snapper with a Spanish sauce, but for fish chowder of a pristine quality, I follow Ed's recipe. The fish of course may be bought, but is immensely better when you have caught it yourself. Any fish will do that is large enough to be boned and filleted. Ed and I always preferred the big-mouthed bass of local waters. In a Dutch oven by preference, or a deep iron skillet by second choice, place a layer of finely cut white bacon or breakfast bacon. On top of that lay gently a layer of boned fish. Place above that a layer of thinly sliced raw peeled Irish potatoes and a layer of thinly sliced raw white onion, and lastly, a layer of soda crackers. Dot with butter and salt and pepper. Repeat the layers in the same order until the cooking pot is filled. Add water halfway to the height of the vessel, cover, and simmer slowly until fish, onions and potatoes are tender. The liquid must cook entirely away, so that the bottom layer of bacon bits and fish is well browned. Add cream to cover, heat to boiling, and serve immediately. You are not quite certain of what the dish consists, for fish, onion and buttered cream are lost in a cosmic delicacy. You know only that something almost too good for common man is before you.
Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), Trending into Maine (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), pp. 154-156:
Mystery has risen like a fog around Maine fish chowder. Some cooks argue that it can’t be made properly without soiling eight or ten stew-pans, dishes and cauldrons. A few pontifically announce that salt pork should never be used; but many contend that pork not only should be used, but should be tried out separately, the liquid fat thrown away, and only the pork scraps added to the stew. There is also a large school of thought which insists that the head and backbone must be boiled separately, and the juice from them used as a basis for the chowder.

All those methods, probably, are excellent; but I have never had a better fish chowder than my grandmother's, and nothing could have been simpler. She believed in leaving fish-heads and backbones where they belonged — in the refuse barrel at the fish market — and in soiling the fewest possible number of kitchen utensils. She had reduced the soilage to one kettle, one knife and one spoon — which is, I believe, the absolute minimum.

Cunners, freshly taken, strike me as being the best basis for a fish chowder, but cunners are unpleasant to clean, because of the extreme slipperiness and excessive toughness of their skins, and the agonizing sharpness of their back spines. If, however, two dozen medium-to-large cunners are delivered to any Maine fish-market, the marketman, with professional skill, skins them and separates the usable portions from the backbones in two shakes of a lamb's tail — and the meat from two dozen cunners is about right for a small fish chowder.

Lacking cunners, my grandmother used a good-sized haddock or cod. The fish was skinned, boned and cut into slices an inch wide and two inches long, or any other convenient size, and at the same time several dozen of the large round crackers sometimes known to New Englanders as common crackers or water biscuit were deposited in the milk pan in which remained the least amount of milk.

A half-dozen medium-sized potatoes and a half-dozen medium-sized onions were cut in slices, a pound of salt pork carved into small cubes, and the pork, fish, onions and potatoes were placed in layers in a kettle. From the milk pan in which the crackers were soaking, enough milk was poured into the kettle to cover liberally the fish, pork, onions and potatoes; and the whole was allowed to simmer for an hour. The moistened crackers, meanwhile, were placed in the bottom of a soup tureen; and at the end of the hour the completed chowder was decanted from the kettle into the tureen. That was all there was to it.

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