Sections

Courtesy Alison Case

8.1.16

Chowder House Rules

Do you want ketchup and horseradish on it?” my dad asks.

“Yes, please!” I answer. I don’t know what to expect, but that’s the way I’d seen the men do it.

“Okay,” says my dad, handing me the raw clam.

The men watch me as I examine the clam – its pale orange and pearly white body, its belly plump with plankton, the dollop of red sauce, the clear liquid that fills its shell to the edges.

I pull the concoction from the shell with my teeth, and I chew. I try not to wince at the shocking intensity of the brine and the odd texture of the meat. I swallow.

“Did you like it?” my dad asks.

“Mmm-hmm!” I proclaim. I’m not sure that I do, but I can’t let the men know. I’m eager to prove that I’m no ordinary little girl.

My mom won’t eat raw meat, and my brother, who is three years older than I am, refuses to eat much more than bread, pasta, cereal, and chicken. But me, I’m brave like the men. And I like hanging around them even if I can’t yet follow their discussions of Reagan’s economic policies and F1 racing. I love the way they always talk, drink, and laugh together.

“She’ll eat anything,” says my dad, shaking his head and smiling. “She’s seven and her favorite meal is steamed artichokes.”

It worked – I’ve impressed my audience. I stretch out my arms to mimic propeller blades and spin around and around on the gray wooden deck. I ask for another clam.

My grandmother first visited Martha’s Vineyard in the 1930s with her friends Betty and Marion, fellow elementary school teachers who waitressed at the Harborside Inn for several summers, fell in love with men working on the Vineyard, and not long after came to live on the Island. My grandparents made regular trips from their home in Connecticut to see their friends, eventually with three kids in tow, the youngest of them my father. They rented a small cottage overlooking Lagoon Pond until they’d saved enough to buy a cottage of their own.

My dad brought his new girlfriend – my mom – to the Vineyard in 1972 to introduce her to his parents, and every subsequent summer my parents visited them in their Oak Bluffs cottage, first as a couple, then as a family of three, and finally, with the addition of me, as a family of four.

I joined the clamming expeditions as soon as I could swim. It was always the men who went: my dad, my grandpa, my brother, and my uncles and cousins if they were visiting too. The men used clam rakes, but I’d sit in the shallow water of the lagoon and dig with my hands through the ink-black sand. I learned to measure the size of the littlenecks and cherrystones using a metal ring attached to a rusty basket kept afloat inside a black inner tube. If the clams slipped through the ring, it meant they were too small and had to be returned to the water. Like a protective mother, I would dig a hole for the immature bivalves and cover them with sand, so they were less exposed to predators or dishonest clammers.

I was especially delighted when the rakes yielded a big, fat, juicy quahaug. Some were bigger than both my hands put together; I’d cradle them and marvel at their size. My dad would explain that the bigger ones were best stuffed and grilled or used in chowder, while the smaller ones were best for eating raw.

When we’d harvested enough, my brother and I would help pull the heavy basket back to shore, proud of our contributions to the evening meal. 

The men have always been the cooks in my family, and the kitchen was my grandfather’s sacred space. No one was allowed in it when he was making dinner, except my dad and uncle, who would sometimes act as sous chefs. It didn’t matter that Uncle Larry had a degree from the Culinary Institute of America; Grandpa Jim was always commander of the kitchen.

Grandpa’s chowder was Rhode Island style – a clear, water-based broth loaded with onions, celery, potatoes, cracked pepper, just-harvested clams, and, to my mother’s chagrin, extra salt. I don’t know if he eschewed the creamy New England variety because he believed clear broth elevated the flavor of the clams or because he preferred not to pay for an extra ingredient. (This was a man who would drive clear across the Island just to save 10 cents a pound on a Sunday ham.) Whatever his reasons, when dinnertime came, I ate heartily and didn’t have to pretend – the cooked clams were easier on my undeveloped palate, and the watery broth was refreshing after a long day in the sun.

My grandparents died in 2001, and the cottage, including Grandpa’s sacred kitchen, now belongs to my parents. Two years ago, my dad and I took my boyfriend clamming for the first time, and together on the deck, we discussed the stock market and World Cup standings and enjoyed our fresh bounty with dollops of horseradish and ketchup. 

While my father still makes most of the family meals, he’s far more diplomatic than his dad had been; he lets me enter the kitchen and act as head chef on many nights. And although the cabinets and counters and appliances have since been updated, and the color palette has changed from brown and orange to blue and white, I can’t help but think of Grandpa Jim when I’m in his kitchen, and I wonder if he’d approve of the amount of salt I add to
my chowder.             

Grandpa Jim’s Clam Chowder

Serves 8

  • 15–20 (about 2 pounds) fresh clams, well scrubbed
  • Salt pork (approximately three-inch hunk), cut into pieces (optional)
  • 2–3 onions, diced
  • 4–6 stalks celery, diced
  • 6–8 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Butter
  • Freshly cracked pepper
  • Salt (optional, especially if using salt pork)

1. Place clams in a large pot and cover with water. Simmer until the shells open, about five minutes. Pluck the clams out of the pot using tongs and place in a large bowl to cool. Discard any clams that do not open.

2. In a pan, sauté onions and salt pork in butter until the onions are translucent. Add celery and sauté for five minutes more. Add the potatoes and sautéed mixture to the clams’ cooking water and simmer. (The salt pork should float to the top and can be easily removed if desired.)

3. Meanwhile, remove the clams from their shells and chop them into bite-sized pieces. (Or, to be truly authentic, you could run them through an old-fashioned meat grinder.) Once the potatoes are fully cooked, add the clams back into the pot and heat them through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately with crusty bread or oyster crackers.

Comments (1)

Kathleen Forsythe
Vineyard Haven
Love it, Alison!!! xo
August 11, 2016 - 12:25pm
You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.