Who is not tempted to salivatory envy by Ishmael’s brief but delicious description of the chowder served by Mrs. Hussey and co. at the Try-Pots in Nantucket in Chapter 15 of Moby-Dick?
[A] warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition.
Well, here is an opportunity to try your own luck at recreating the potluck at the Try-Pots. Adapting a recipe found in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cookbook from the 1880s (only three decades past the publication date of Melville’s book), user “Needs Mead,” on the fascinating blog “Food Through the Pages,” provides the following recipe for Try Pots Clam Chowder:
Try Pots Clam Chowder Recipe
Total prep time: 1 hour
Yields about 2-3 servings
Cook’s Notes: I didn’t need to add salt, as the salt pork provided exactly the right amount on its own, but a dash of pepper won’t go amiss. This recipe is adapted from one from Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cookbook, from the 1880s. This puts it just a few decades after the publication of Moby Dick, and on the right coast.
- 25 clams, whole, in shells
- 1/4 lb. salt pork, diced
- 2 cups water
- 2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced large
- 1 onion, chopped fine
- 1/2 tsp. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. sweet marjoram
- 1/2 Tbs. parsley
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 cup milk
- 3 water crackers or 2 sea biscuits, crumbled
- 2 Tbs. butter
- 2 Tbs. flour
Wash clams thoroughly. Into a largeish saucepan, pour 1 1/2 cups water; then add the whole clams. Put a lid on and simmer until the shells open. Take the opened clams out of the pot, reserving the liquid in a separate container. Any clams that do not open should be discarded.
Line the bottom of the saucepan with the diced salt pork. Now put a layer of potatoes on the salt pork, then a sprinkling of onion, thyme, sweet marjoram, parsley, salt & pepper, then a layer of clams, and continue until all the ingredients are used. Add the water, which should be boiling and barely cover the whole. Cover and simmer for half an hour without stirring. Then add the milk and crackers, stir and cook ten minutes longer. Make a roux by melting the butter over medium heat, then stirring in the flour. Stir in a ladle or two of broth, then add the whole mix back into the chowder.
Serve hot, with extra biscuits on the side.
Needs Mead’s Thoughts: “Fabulous, if a little unconventional. The liquid reduces down, and the stewed potatoes begin to fall apart, such that the whole chowder becomes this dense concoction, much thicker than most chowders available at restaurants. Redolent with the goodness of spuds and onions, and just a hint of herbs, the chowder on the whole is flavorful and filling. Every so often a clam comes up in a spoonful, and is an extra treat. All in all, this seems to me an ideal chowder for taking the chill off after a long spell at sea.”