by David Cecelski
At my local fish market, I found the first big chowder clams of the autumn—they were from the White Oak River, near Swansboro. I made a big pot of Core Sound-style clam chowder with them to share with my family during Thanksgiving. It’s an old, old traditional recipe on the part of the North Carolina coast where I grew up and it’s one of my favorite dishes of any kind, unsurpassed on a cold winter day with a nor’easter blowing.
The distinctive quality of our clam chowder is that it’s made with a broth that is essentially just fresh clam juice, seasoned sometimes with a little salt pork or fatback. We don’t put milk, cream, or tomato juice in the broth, as I’ve seen in other parts of the country. I enjoy those other clam chowders, too, but I am wholly partial to our version, which I learned from my grandmother in Carteret County.
Made with only fresh, wild clams and their juice, potatoes, onions, and a little black pepper, and usually served with corn dumplings, this most traditional of clam chowders is simple, almost austere fare, yet unbelievably good. To me the flavor harkens to some ancestral memory of the sea that I think is still somewhere deep within me, and maybe in us all.
Over the generations, coastal people could always look to this kind of clam chowder to help them get through tough winters. The clams were on the shore, available to all at low tide, and the last harvest’s potatoes and onions kept well in storage over the winter, so they were on hand, too. The cornmeal for the dumplings was usually abundant as well. In the old days, coastal families often obtained the corn by trading salt fish or oysters with farmers who lived upriver.
Often called Hatteras Island or Core Sound-style because it’s always been so popular in those old fishing communities, this kind of clam chowder can be found most commonly in homes between Hatteras and Salter Path. I’ve always suspected that it originated with the Algonquin Indians, who once dug clams and grew corn by those shores: it somehow seems like an ancient recipe to me. All I know for sure, though, is that it tastes like the essence of the place where I grew up more than any other dish I know.
* * *
I fix my chowder just like my grandmother did, except that my brother taught me the trick of freezing the clams overnight so that I can better preserve all the natural clam juice. I’m usually the last person in the world to recommend freezing seafood, but this is my exception. I really don’t think freezing harms the flavor of the clams. Or if it does diminish their flavor just a teensy bit, the flavor from holding onto all the fresh clam juice more than makes up for it. Freezing also makes the clams easier to open.
Here’s the recipe—
Start with two-dozen chowder-size clams. That’s the largest-size clam—you might have to special order them at your fish market because fishmongers assume you want littlenecks and other smaller-size clams and often don’t carry them. (They’ll actually cost less than the smaller-size clams.) They must be fresh, wild clams, alive and in the shell.
Wash shells well and let them dry. Freeze at least overnight. Remove from freezer and thaw for 45 minutes to an hour. I find the shells are too brittle if I skip that step. They shatter when I try to open them and get very messy.
Open with a strong oyster or clam knife. Scrape out all frozen contents with the knife. Place in a bowl. When done, move the meat and ice from bowl and chop it all up. Be quick—you don’t want the ice to melt and lose the juice. Put back in bowl and set aside.
Fry out several slices of salt pork or fatback in a big pot. (Optional—you can use ½ cup of vegetable oil instead if you’d rather.) Add 2 large chopped onions and let cook a few minutes, then add the clams and all their assorted ice and juice. Let simmer, covered. Stir occasionally.
After 10 or 15 minutes, add 3 cups water. Don’t let clams stick to pot— add more water as needed throughout cooking. I usually add a total of 4-5 cups water—more if I’m trying to stretch the chowder to feed a crowd.
Cook on low boil for 30 minutes, covered. Add 5 cubed white potatoes and black pepper to taste. (I like lots of black pepper in mine.) Cook another 30 minutes.
Fifteen minutes before the chowder is ready, add cornmeal dumplings. To make the dumplings, mix 2 cups yellow cornmeal, 1-teaspoon salt, and ½ – 1-cup water in a bowl. (Most people don’t, but I add black pepper to my dumplings, too.) I use my fingers to stir the batter.
Shape dumplings in the palm of your hand. The batter should hold together if you’ve got the consistency right. If the batter isn’t holding together, play with the proportion of water and cornmeal. Take a large spoon and place the dumplings down the sides of the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.