Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sconset Beach & Clam Chowder

Jennifer, Jolene and I set out this morning at 9:30 AM for Siaconset Beach. It is about 6 miles from the Gouin Village and we can take a transit shuttle for $2.00 so we decided to forego the idyllic notion of biking out there and back. In truth, the biking thing is a whole lot of work and in hot, humid sticky weather - it is not idyllic or romantic in any way, unless being sticky, sweaty, hot and dirty are your idea of nirvana.

The formal name is Siasconset, but locals call it 'Sconset for short.

It is at the most eastern point of Nantucket, and you look out into the Atlantic Ocean and all you see beyond that is Portugal. Well, if you could see Portugal anyway...

All the travel and leisure magazine rate Sconset beach the third best in New England.

It was not crowded, and Sconset beach is a wide expanse of sand dotted with occasional sunbathers, book readers and we saw a seal here and there in the water.

The water was cold - even for Jolene - and so we just sat on the beach and just chatted and sunbathed from 10:30 to 12:30 before we headed back to the village of Sconset to have lunch at the Sconset cafe.

There was a Sconset Cafe Clam Chowder on the menu and it stated that it is said to be the "best" on Nantucket - so I had to try it.

Jennifer and I have pretty much tried every chowder at every place we have been and the Sconset chowder is not the typical thick, creamy Quahog chowder that we have had all over the island. The Sconset chowder was a "true" Cape Cod milk chowder. It was a thin, unthickened milk-based chowder with chunks of red potatoes and chopped Quahogs. There was also a golden slick of butter floating on the top.

It was a good chowder, but not great by any means and certainly not "the best" I ever had by a long shot.

It is said that native New Englanders will say that the thin milk chowder is the most authentic one as opposed to the thick, wallpaper paste consistency chowder that predominates the country as "New England Clam Chowder". Supposedly, New Englanders believe that chowders should be thickened with crackers - nothing else.

It is unclear if chowder was an invention of the French, British, or Native Americans, but its development clearly has links to the growth of the fishing trade off the coast of the Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England. Fish chowder received its first bit of publicity in 1751 in Boston, while there was no written reference to clams in chowder until 1833, when Lydia Maria Child mentioned that “a few clams are a pleasant addition” to her fish chowder recipe. (While it makes many New Englanders squirm, Ms. Child also used the same recipe to introduce the concept of adding tomato (in the form of ketchup) to her chowder — instantly igniting the issue that has forever sundered sensible New Englanders and their milk-based New England Clam Chowder from their big-city neighbors to the south with their tomato-mish-mash Manhattan Clam Chowder. Will these senseless feuds never end!?)

Anyway, in 1837, another cookbook writer, Eliza Leslie, took the courageous stand that “chowder may be made of clams,” and further secured the world’s gratitude by advocating the use of potatoes in chowder. In decades to follow, thousands of varieties of clam chowder evolved, often according to ingredient availability (soft-shell clams, or steamers, being the staple in Maine because of their abundance; quahogs being chosen on Cape Cod because of their profusion).

Among thousands of clam chowders, no more than three or four broad categories have taken on names that chefs or food snobs would agree on. There are two recognized types of New England clam chowder (the assertive chowder made with quahogs and seasoned with herbs and often garlic, and the sweeter, more subtle steamer, or soft-shell, clam chowder, which is less heavily seasoned). According to Jasper White, both include a creamy broth with clams, potatoes, onions, celery, and salt pork or bacon, but neither of these two varieties has an official name other than New England Clam Chowder.

Yes, there is Manhattan Clam Chowder, which some have characterized as vegetable soup with clams. It, too, has many, many varieties. In between — geographically and culinarily — there is is Rhode Island Clam Chowder, which has neither tomatoes nor milk, but a clear broth (although pitchers of hot milk are often served alongside for those who realize that Rhode Island is actually a part of New England).

In your zeal to understand chowder, you have fallen into the trap of believing that — like most things in our commercial society — everything in the food world is branded. There is no official Boston Clam Chowder, nor can we find any agreement about what particular variation of New England Clam Chowder it would refer to. That doesn’t mean, of course, that dishes by that name don’t appear on hundreds of restaurant menus inside and outside of Boston. Authentic Clam Chowder is either an oxymoron or it applies equally to any and all clam chowders ever made.

I actually like any variety of clam chowder as long as it has milk and potatoes - and I despise Manhattan Clam Chowder as much as I love the creamy versions.

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