I grew up going to my Aunt Pauline's beach house in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey every summer as a kid in the early 90's, but hadn't been back in years. I was lucky enough to fly back East for a similar summer trip to the Jersey Shore, recently. South Jersey Shore, to be exact. Water Ice, not Italian Ice. Hoagies, not Subs. Phillies, not Yankees. And definitely no Snooki and no The Situation. Despite the more-than-a-decade long hiatus, it felt as it always had. A lot of my greatest memories came flooding back. Sure, some things had changed. It's not a Colonial Williamsburg-esque time warp type of place. iPhone X's replaced Morotorla Razrs, Fireball shots instead of Cuervo, and Migos blaring at the bars instead of 50 Cent. But the staples...aromas of salt water taffy mixed with low tide, trite Treasure Island themed mini golf courses, and mom'n'pop stores that seem to never quite be open, despite it being 1pm on a Tuesday...were all just the same.
That being said, of all the boogie-boarding and monopoly games to be had, there was one thing in particular I had my mind set on. My Aunt Pauline, the now 83 year old matriarch of the family, was spending the whole summer with her daughter and grandkids at the shore in Avalon. The house we rented was only a few blocks away, so I knew this would be the perfect time to learn one of our most cherished family recipes, Manhattan Clam Chowder, from the original gangster herself.
Ok, but first, dare I ask, what is a chowder? After all, there are hundreds of types of chowder. New England, being the most famous, is clam and dairy based. Then there's Manhattan, Rhode Island, Hatteras, Chesapeake, New Jersey, Minorcan, all of which are clam-centric, but vary in their base and viscosity. Next you've got Bermuda Fish Chowder, Corn Chowder, Southern Illinois Beef Chowder, Potato Chowder, and these are just dishes that carry the name. All very different. Some firmly believe chowder has to be thick and milk based. Are Lobster Bisque, She-Crab Soup, and even Broccoli Cheddar then chowders? Others say potatoes, onions, and some form of pork are the minimal requirements. What about countless vegetable soups that meet those criteria? Are they too chowders? Just have to be seafood focused? Then are Maryland Crab Soup, Cioppino, and Gumbo all not chowders? What about non-domestic seafood soups that are often coconut milk based like Creole Caribbean Rondón, Guatemalan Tapado, and Thai Tom Yum Goong? Are they technically chowders? Does true chili have beans or not? Is a hot dog a sandwich? Why do I need I.D., to get I.D.? If I had I.D. I wouldn't need I.D. Hope there are a few Common fans out there. Anyway, get the point?
|Manhattan Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl at Chowders on Pier 39 in San Francisco|
However, all this still doesn't answer: what is a chowder? After a lot reading and research, debate and discussion, I could only come to one conclusion: fuck if I know. Seriously. It's one of those culinary concepts that takes so many forms it's difficult to define. Nor do I really want to. Chowder is much more to people beyond just a bowl of soup. Case in point, my inclusion of the tomato-based Manhattan Clam Chowder as an actual chowder will draw ire from many a New Englander and label me as a heretic. Few things stir up such intense feelings as food. It's fiercely defining for someone's culture, ideology, and overall identity. Whether it's paying homage to your heritage with a traditional holiday meal or making a statement by boycotting or excluding certain foods from your table, what and how we eat is a major part of who we are. So no, I definitely do not want to challenge what chowder is to anyone, but rather celebrate what it has come to be for me and my family.
Family recipes mean a lot to me. Some like old jewelry, others scrapbooks or photo albums. I like family cookbooks. There is some indescribable feeling that overtakes me while flipping through my mom's old ones, all peppered with hand-written tweaks and twists. A generations' worth of culinary how-to at your fingertips, all tried-and-tested, gained from the humble purpose of feeding people. It's even better reading recipes from family members who've passed. Just seeing their writing makes me feel closer to them, let alone making the dishes they spent years perfecting. Biting into my Mom-Mom's banana chocolate cake instantly takes me back to my early birthdays, sitting on her lap, and blowing out the candles.
|Top - My Aunt Pauline's Manhattan Clam Chowder Recipe|
Bottom - My Grandma's Deviled Crabs Recipe
I think family recipes are slowly disappearing, or at least our appreciation of them. It could be that tv-streaming tablets are replacing connections to family dinners, or the emergence of meal prep and delivery services like Sun Basket and Hello Fresh. Even worse, Caviar, Uber Eats, and Postmates. Dont' get me wrong, I'm not an anti-iPad luddite or don't enjoy the convenience of app-ordered Chinese food. Trust me, I've had the demoralizing experience more than once of looking the DoorDash guy in the eye as he hands over McDonald's breakfast to my hungover ass. People do seem to be more and more interested in their food, where it's from, how it's sourced, and so on, and I don't want to take that away from anyone or deny it. But I don't hear much appreciation for the tupperware generation and the mayonnaise-based salads or cream of mushroom casseroles that helped get us here.
|50 Count Topneck Chowder Clams|
|Manhattan Clam Chowder Prep|
|Me and My Aunt Pauline with the Manhattan Clam Chowder|
The SF Oyster Nerd