On the East End of Long Island, people have been opening clams and eating them for a very long time, starting with native Americans who left piles of clamshells behind to attest to their enthusiasm. The Shelter Island Historical Society has a letter written in 1820 by Sylvester Dering describing the discovery of a large number of clam shells found while digging a well- 40 feet down, suggesting some very old archaeological evidence of clam consumption.
The first published fish chowder recipe in America appeared in the Boston Evening Post- a recipe in verse:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning:
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Then season well with Pepper, Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel:
For by repeating o’re the Same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men,
Last Bottle of Claret, with Water eno’ to smother ‘em
You’l have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ‘em.
Aside from the brilliance of a recipe in verse (easy to memorize, you’ll never forget to add the thyme) this preparation has a lot in common with another great chowder recipe, Melva’s 1st Place Chowder, which appeared in “The Shelter Island Historical Society Cookbook.” Melva Sherman came to Shelter Island in the 1920s to work as a schoolteacher, married local boy Herbert Sherman, worked as postmaster and went on to build a Shelter Island chowder dynasty.
Her dominance in the chowder realm was crowned when her soup won first prize at the Fire Department Country Fair, and inspired her grandson Matt to capture her method since she did not work from any recipe. He sat at the table with her after they got the chowder simmering and she dictated.
This act of culinary historic preservation on Matt’s part, and the subsequent publication of the recipe he recorded in the Historical Society Cookbook, is a textbook example of how most of the American recipes we still use and cherish today came to be preserved. A person who knew how to make something delicious, let somebody turn it into a recipe, which was often shared in a community cookbook. Community cookbooks are treasure troves for culinary historians trying to understand the food and culture of the past.
Melva’s technique called for grinding the ingredients, and was accomplished with a Hamilton Beach grinder and a cast iron pot, both of which are still in the Sherman family. Since I don’t have an antique grinder I decided to adapt the Sherman family’s recipe as faithfully as I could, and here is the result. Instead of a grinder, I chopped the ingredients coarsely, cooked them, and then used a blender to puree part of the soup to achieve the desired texture. I was used the same kind of cast iron pot.
And I understand why this clam chowder was so prized.
Adapted from Melva Sherman’s 1st Place Chowder in “The Shelter Island Historical Society Cookbook,” 2013
¼ cup salt pork
1-pound chopped onion
1-pound potatoes, coarsely chopped
12 oz carrots, coarsely chopped
1 large (28oz) can tomatoes or fresh tomatoes blanched, skins removed and coarsely chopped.
4 cups water
Salt to taste
8 dozen cherrystone or littleneck clams steamed in 2 cups water, removed from shells- should yield about 4 cups of clams and a pint of juice.
Use 4 cups canned clams and a pint of bottled clam juice
Cook the salt pork in a cast iron pot at low heat until the pork gives up its fat. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until they are soft. Add the carrots and potatoes, and one cup of the water, and continue cooking for 45 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Add the tomatoes, and another two cups of the water, bring to a simmer and cook 30 minutes. Add another cup of water as needed to make it thick, but soupy.
In the meantime, scrub and rinse the clams, put them in a pot with 2 cups of water and steam them, removing the clams as soon as they open. Reserve them in a bowl to cool, strain the clam broth into another bowl. Chop the clam meats, and put them in the bowl of strained broth to stay moist.
Taste the vegetables to see if they are soft, and add salt to taste. Puree the soup, using an immersion blender, or by transferring two cups of warm soup at a time to the blender and then pour the blended soup back into the pot, until you have a very thick but soupy consistency.
Add the clams and the clam broth to the pureed soup and let it simmer very low for five minutes without boiling, so the clams don’t get tough. Serve immediately.
Oysterponds Historical Society presents Ms. Robey and Jane Lear hosting Bay to Table: Clams in Oysterponds on Saturday, Sept. 14, from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. at the Orient Yacht Club. Guests will enjoy a bowl of chowder and look back on 10 years of clam-eating traditions and the chowders and clambakes enjoyed today. Admission: $25 for one person; $40 for two people.