The first commercial during the Super Bowl this year was for avocados. The coveted slot went to a fruit native to Mexico. Though the Japanese didn’t embrace avocados until the 1970s (they aren’t grown on that island either) they now refer to them as the “butter of the woods.” You can find them served on English muffins at McDonalds in Tokyo. The excitement over this food the Aztecs once relished is arguably a victory over meals filled with empty calories. It also inevitably leads to thoughts about why a food rises to celebrity status. What is it about avocados? More broadly, what does this magic moment for the nubbly-skinned fruit tell us about other dishes we have long loved — like say chowder.

Clam chowder is so closely associated with coastal New England and the Island that it is a cliche, albeit a tasty one. It is increasingly rarely made at home, but returning visitors begin their summer sojourn by lining up at the ferry snack bar for a ceremonial cup. Eating the creamy soup during the crossing, which is made in bulk, to be sipped from Styrofoam cups with plastic spoons, stirs people to passion not so much because of the taste, but because the experience conjures memories, a sense of history and the expectation of fun. A pretzel from the concession stand just isn’t the same. Chowder on the ferry resonates because we are drawn to the particular mix of briny, smoky and earthy flavors but also because we sense it is true to this place and to our story.

Earlier settlers were slow to embrace clams; now they are chowder staples. — Jocelyn Filley

Today chowder is more or less synonymous with clam chowder, but that was not always the case. Native hardshell clams — quahaugs, littlenecks and cherrystones — were not enthusiastically embraced by European settlers. Unlike oysters, they were unfamiliar. So rather than eat them, they fed them to the pigs. Until the 19th century, clams were eaten by most only in times of want. Since then they have gained in popularity but they remain the oysters’ poor relation. Aquaculture reflects this. Oyster farmers can make a living while clams still fetch pennies.

The clams here were strange to European settlers but chowders were not. They were long enjoyed on both sides of the English Channel where fishermen’s catch traditionally went into the cauldron. In this country, fish, not clams featured in early recipes, the first published in The Boston Evening Post in 1751.

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time. …

Typical of its time, the chowder was made by layering, the starch delivered by biscuits, and in this iteration, claret and/or water provided the liquid. Over the years, countless chowders were made in New England with eels, corn, parsnips, lobster, oysters, meat and poultry (Henry Beetle Hough, longtime Gazette editor, published his mother’s chicken chowder recipe in 1923). Ultimately chowder became an iconic dish subject to enormous variation — a little like pizza (or avocado toast).

John Thorne, author of Down East Chowder, described the difference between a chowder and a fish or shellfish stew: “A chowder represents the special preparation of some very ordinary ingredients, while a stew represents an ordinary preparation of some very special ingredients.’’ This mindful make-do simplicity is the character of this dish which led to its popularity here and is why it still feels just right. Ingredients can be harvested from local fields, pastures and seas, and are best prepared with native wisdom and finesse.

So what are the essentials of an authentic Martha’s Vineyard clam chowder? You start by rendering pork — salt-pork or pork belly (bacon), smoked or not. The flavorful fat lays the foundation. Next come the vegetables, onions and potatoes for sure but sometimes leeks or celery or both — cook together slowly to form the base. Hardshell clams are a must; big chowder clams chopped were the traditional way to go, but littlenecks work. The only major point of contention involves the ingredient that has come to separate a Massachusetts chowder from the rest. Stanley Larsen remembers eating clear chowder when he was growing up, made without any dairy. He says that was real Vineyard chowder. Others of his generation concur. But Stanley also recalls enjoying clam chowder finished with evaporated milk at homes around the Island. So for now the controversy remains unresolved. One thing becomes clear though — making your own is something worth getting back to. Like ice cream, chowder is not hard to make and is best prepared with good ingredients by hand. When it is, you’ll find it’s as all-cylinders-firing delicious in a modern tasting way as avocado-anything.



Clam Chowder Recipe

Serves 6

The secret to this chowder is to slowly cook the onions, leeks, and fennel (we like the bright note it adds) in the bacon fat, then simmer the vegetables in the juice you get from cooking the clams. The result is a smoky, briny and savory soup, so richly flavored we didn’t feel the need to add cream or milk, evaporated or otherwise. But feel free to add half a cup or so if you like just before serving.

3 dozen littleneck clams
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 pound sliced bacon, cut crosswise into lardons
2 large leeks, whites only, quartered and sliced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and diced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced

Rinse the clams, then put them in a large bowl, cover with cold water and set aside to soak and release sand for at least 30 minutes. Lift the clams out of the water and place in a large pot. Add the wine, cover the pot, and steam over high heat. As the clams open, transfer them to a large bowl. Set aside to cool. Reserve the clam broth left in the pot.

Render the bacon in a soup pot over low heat. Stir the bacon occasionally and cook until it begins to color at the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the leeks, onion and fennel, season with salt, and sweat by cooking slowly, stirring from time to time until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, shuck the clams, chop and hold them in the refrigerator. Add any accumulated clam juice to the reserved broth then pour it through a strainer lined with cheese cloth into the soup pot over the vegetables. Raise the heat slightly and simmer the broth until it reduces and the vegetables are almost dry again, about 12 minutes.

Add the potatoes, a bit more salt, some pepper and 3 cups of water. Cover the pot, adjust the heat and simmer the chowder until the potatoes are nicely soft, about 15 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and let the chowder rest for 30 minutes (or refrigerate it for longer).

Shortly before serving, add clams and heat the chowder over medium heat. Adjust seasoning with pepper and salt if necessary and serve.

Chris Fischer is chef at The Covington restaurant in Edgartown. His 2015 Beetlebung Farm Cookbook won a James Beard award for American cooking. Catherine Young collaborates with him on writing and recipes.