Clam Chowder, Mom, and Memories

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I can’t remember the first time I ate a clam. But I do know it was far earlier than my first oyster, or scallop, or mussel. And it was likely this Maine clam chowder recipe that’s been in my family for more than a century. 

A bowl of Maine clam chowder.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Clams are in my family’s DNA. My mom, after all, is a native of Ipswich, Massachusetts. And if there is a place more clam-centric than Ipswich, I can’t think of it; there is even a clam nicknamed the “Ipswich clam.” We know it as the steamer.

To me, clams mean vacation. Summertime. Happiness. I’ve written about my fond memories of digging hard-shell clams on Block Island both in this space and in my book, and even today, 3,000 miles from New England, clamming in the mud flats of California brings joy to my heart the way nothing else really does.

I owe all of this to my mom. It was she who taught me how to dig and eat clams. So imagine my surprise when it finally dawned on me, sometime in my teenage years, that mom really doesn’t care for clams all that much.

Don’t get me wrong: She led our clamming expeditions on Block Island, her version of stuffed clams is one of my favorites, and no one else’s New England clam chowder can ever compare to hers. I only learned it was a Maine clam chowder later in life. More on that in a bit. 

For mom, clams and clamming bring back bittersweet memories of her childhood on coastal New England. It was just after World War II, and while times weren’t so hard as in the Depression, the beauty of the shoreline was mixed with some hard, smelly work.

Every Friday during those summers it was up to mom and my Uncle David to gather steamer clams for dinner and quahogs for chowder. I asked her to tell me about it a few years ago, and this is her story:

The steamer or ‘piss clams’ were dug at low tide and we walked to the flat from our cottage in Ipswich carrying our large clam bucket, a pitchfork and a small tin can for the sea worms. [Mom sold them as bait.]

The steamers were plentiful then and the water wasn’t polluted so it was safe to eat the clams that we dug. The clams were easy to find, as when the tide goes out the clams bury themselves deep into the mud and leave a small round air hole, which is a dead giveaway that the clam is there. For some reason the clams like to all live together in the same area, so once we started to dig we found plenty of them.

We tried hard not to pierce their soft shells with the pitchfork and mostly were successful. We did this by not digging quite as deep as where the clams lay and then used our hands to finish the job. As we dug away the mud, we sometimes got cuts on our hands from the sharp empty clamshells that were sticking up at odd angles. No manicure in those days!

But what a delight it was to reach into the mud and come up with a juicy, spitting (they spit out a long stream of salt water when picked up to try to frighten you away), healthy steamer clam to plunk into the bucket!

…After we had a bucket full of steamer clams, we got our rowboat and went to the enormous sand bar off the south end of Plum Island, which juts out into Ipswich Bay. We would pull our boat up onto the bar and drop the anchor. If the tide turned and started coming in we would keep careful watch and keep moving the boat higher up onto the bar.

The process to find the giant sea clams (what we locally called quahogs) is to wade waist deep in the water out onto the bar and start to wiggle your toes in the lovely sandy bottom. When your heel, foot or toe hit something very hard you knew you had found your first quahog! Then you had to dive down under the water and using two hands dislodge the sea clam from its hold on the sand. This is easier said than done. The quahog has an enormous “foot” which it proceeds to stick out into the sand to help anchor it in place. So it is a tug of war to get the thing up and out of the sand.

Because we were waist deep in water we had to be up-ended very much like you see the ducks and swans do when they are looking for food. Fortunately, it only takes two or three of these large clams to make a very tasty chowder.

Sounds pretty fun to me, but once she returned home, I got a sense of why mom isn’t all that keen on clams to this day. Clams, if you’ve ever cleaned one, are pretty gnarly. And remember she was about 12 or 13 years old at the time.

…My job was to make the chowder. This meant I had to clean those enormous, nasty quahogs. To this day I really don’t enjoy eating clams of any kind. The quahogs had huge, nasty bellies which I had to separate and throw away, and they had a 5-6 inch long translucent, round tube in them that was slippery and hard. I don’t know how the clam used it [The tube is called the crystalline style; it’s part of the clam’s digestive system.], but it was yucky! That too had to be removed and thrown out.

That left the luscious, pink-colored, firm, meaty foot (the part that the quahog used to try to anchor itself in the sand so I couldn’t pull it up) and two large, round, white muscle hinges. These I was happy to grind up for the chowder.

Mom's recipe card for her Maine clam chowder.

I’m pretty durable, but even I get skeeved out a bit by that freaky translucent tube; when you clean a clam, it seems to be alive — almost rocketing out of the clam belly when you cut it open. And, as they say, it was a brave person who first ate a clam. While not quite so snot-like as a raw oyster, a raw clam doesn’t scream out yummy! Even though it is.

Nonetheless, I grew up eating clams. Which means mom made them. And all her clam recipes are fantastic. Especially her Maine clam chowder.

A bowl of Maine clam chowder, showing the potatoes and clams.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

For the first 30-odd years of my life, I just thought mom’s chowder was unique to our family. It is a white chowder like most New England versions, but unlike the chowders in much of Massachusetts, mom’s is soupy and brothy, not thick and creamy.

It was only when I delved more seriously into food that I realized this was a recognized variety of chowder; it’s a Maine clam chowder. I asked mom about this, and she reminded me that her mother grew up in Wiscasset, Maine. Mystery solved.

Looking back on all this, I am struck by how important it must have been for mom to raise us all as bona fide clam lovers, even though it was not something she herself still liked to eat. It was both an act of regional pride (Yankees eat clams. Period.) and, more importantly, an act of love.

I am thankful for that, and for all the other acts of love mom has shown me over the years, both large and small. Every time I eat this particular New England clam chowder, I think of her. I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day. I hope I did your chowder proud.

A bowl of Maine clam chowder.
4.90 from 28 votes

Maine Clam Chowder

This chowder is thin and brothy, not thick and creamy. Other than that it is a recipe that goes back in my family probably a century or more. It is easy to make, with one exception, and it is an important one: You cannot allow this to boil, or even simmer, once the milk has been added. It will curdle. There are two ways to help stop this from happening. First, you can heat the milk and evaporated milk to steaming before adding it to the chowder pot. Or you can do what mom often does, which is to let the chowder base cool to room temperature before adding the milk and then reheating it; this process is called "ripening."
Course: Soup
Cuisine: American
Servings: 8 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 pound salt pork or bacon, minced
  • 1 large onion, about 1 1/2 to 2 cups, chopped
  • 2 pounds potatoes, about 3 to 4 cups, peeled and diced
  • 1 quart clam juice
  • 1 pound chopped clams, about 1 pint
  • A 12-ounce can of evaporated milk (do not use lowfat milk)
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • Black pepper to taste

Instructions 

  • In a large soup pot, heat the butter over medium heat and add the diced salt pork and onions. Fry this slowly until the the onions are soft and translucent. Do not brown the onions.
  • Mix in the potatoes and the clam juice and add enough water to just barely cover the potatoes. Bring this to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are just about tender -- not completely cooked -- add the chopped clams and turn off the heat. Let this cool for at least 30 minutes. You can make this chowder base up to a day ahead if you'd like.
  • Once the chowder base is pretty cool (below 100°F), add the milk and evaporated milk and turn the heat on low. Gently bring the chowder up to eating temperature, and be very careful not to let it simmer. Add some freshly ground black pepper to taste and serve hot.

Notes

Resist the urge to add any herbs or spices other than black pepper to this chowder. New Englanders in general, and Mainers in specific, are as spare in their words as they are in their cooking.
  • A word on the clams. I am using gaper (horseneck) clams from California because that's what I have. A real Maine chowder uses quahogs, which are the dominant clam in markets on the East Coast. Canned clams are OK, too, although not as good.
  • Eat this chowder with Yankee cornbread -- mom calls it johnnycake -- and a salad.
  • Oh, and I'll leave this here as a final note: If you are scared of the possibility of your chowder curdling, skip the 3 cups of whole milk, add more clam broth or fish stock to replace it, and pour in at least a half pint of heavy cream. That's foolproof. 

Nutrition

Calories: 257kcal | Carbohydrates: 19g | Protein: 6g | Fat: 18g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Cholesterol: 31mg | Sodium: 925mg | Potassium: 255mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 9g | Vitamin A: 437IU | Vitamin C: 7mg | Calcium: 119mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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67 Comments

  1. Being from Nova Scotia, my mother would make an awesome clam chowder from the many clams I would dig at Five Islands NS. I regret never having my mother write down her fabulous recipes. But your mom’s version looks pretty close to what I remember eating, all those years ago. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us..

    Harl

  2. Hi Hank, just wanted to let you know that I’ve made your mom’s chowder almost exactly as described 4 times now, with the sole exception that I can never find quahogs in Philly, so I use littlenecks, cherrystones or hardshell steamers as available. It has become part of our family too, so I’m grateful to yours for teaching me that light and oceanic beats creamy and gloppy.
    I am stirring a pot of the onions and fat at this very moment, waiting to steal a few pork cracklings out.

  3. Thanks! I’ll give the chowder a try with our so-called ‘american razor clam’ (Ensis directus); sounds like the obvious choice! 🙂

  4. I lived in Boston some years ago and enjoyed a variation of chowders – this one looks delicious! However, in Scandinavia (I’m Danish and for the first time ever not proud about it, but that’s a totally different story) we don’t have access to bottled clam juice. Is the juice in your recipe from the clams when opened or what? Thanks for sharing!
    (PS I became an instant fan of your blog when stumpling upon your Tabasco recipe – still got half a pint fermenting!)

  5. This is a fantastic chowder recipe, so full of flavor. I have been searching for one like this, ever since I went to a special Norwegian meal at the Poulsbo Sons of Norway in Washington. I fell in love with the, milky, buttery clam chowder they served up. In the northwest, typical “New England Clam Chowders” are so thick you can stand up a spoon. So…to learn that real clam chowder is thin and buttery, not floured up white sauce…made me really happy. I made this for my husband last night, and we both agree…this is much better than what we were served before. I won’t be ordering it in a restaurant again around Washington. I will keep making my own from this wonderful recipe. Thanks for sharing it! What’s even better, we went clamming this year on the Washington Coast and brought home five days worth of limiting out on razor clams. We have a good supply of clams to work with. 🙂

  6. Came upon your site by accident. Was on “The Perfect Pantry” getting a recipe for New England style clam chowder and they had a link to your site. After reading your post and then looking around your site a little I have 1. copied your recipe for Maine clam chowder and decided to buy your books. I have fished very little in my life and have never hunted. but have decided to take up both. I believe the true “American Dream” is supposed to be self-sufficiency not a big house and all the latest gadgets, and I believe that using the knowledge you impart will help tremendously with that goal. Thank you very much for the blog. I loved the story. I was born and raised in Massachusetts and clams were a big part of my childhood.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your mother’s recipe. I love it and love you mother.
    I live in Washington state, and the best part of clam digging is the sharing with friends and family.
    Nothing like a great clam chowder on a blistery day, and yours will be enjoyed soon.
    Your site is my favorite by far.

  8. Nice. From cold Kennebec County in Maine, zero degrees for several days in a row now
    I have taken to the woods for the summers, all by myself in a tent, and I am using your suggestions for foraging and cooking. I just started last year. I was 72 then. It has helped a lot, now that I am retired, bored-with-no-job and no vehicle, and off of the land. Your posts are very realistic and helpful. I’ll be planting mushroom spores that have already come in the mail, and edible ground flowers, and fishing a lot. Thanks.

  9. fabulous! on a dreary, rainy day here in new york, i want a huge bowl of this. the addition of the salt pork has got to be one of the things that make this dish. it’s my secret weapon when making my tomato sauce – always brings a complex flavor to it!

  10. Well done! Maybe there will be a chowda this summer along with my fabulous verson of Mum’s Blueberry Buckle! xoxo

  11. Thank you for such a lovely post. It was so interesting to read your mother’s memories of clamming. My husband and I lived in Boston for 8 years before our move to Sweden so we made it to Ipswich a few times for clams. I do miss those fried, fat-bellied clams. Mmmmm. Nothing like that in my current neck of the woods.

    When I was 7 my family lived in Corvallis, OR for a year while my dad was on sabattical. He and my cousin (in his 20s) would go clamming and I remember my cousin being blown away by how quickly my sister and I could down their hard work.

    Thanks for the post and the memories.

  12. A very sweet and loving tribute to your mom. When I saw the handwritten index card I got goosebumps; my mother used index cards to write her recipes and I have many of them. The chowder sounds delicious and is going into my recipe file. Thanks for sharing.

  13. What a wonderful tribute to your mom! I’ve never gone clamming myself, but I’ve heard many stories about it from my mom. She and her friends used to spend their summers at the Jersey shore, and spent many hours digging clams. Oddly, my mom doesn’t eat clams, or any other seafood for that matter. My earliest memory of clams, other than eating chowder (I can’t remember a time when I didn’t eat chowder), was when I was about 5 and we were at a picnic at the home of a family friend. There were half shells, and since it was well known that I was a very daring eater, one of Dad’s friends dared me to eat a raw clam. I was hooked! I haven’t found a clam preparation yet that I didn’t love. Your chowder recipe looks great; it’s very similar to mine, but I dress it up with cream and celery (and yes, a touch of Old Bay). I still like mine thin, though. Now I need to go buy clams.

  14. Lovely tribute to your mom, Hank. And what wonderful clam chowder! That soup is one of my very favorite meals, although I’m kind of whimpy and chop my clams much finer because I don’t like the chewiness. I’ve dug for clams once in my life, in North Carolina, and enjoyed the activity. We also went “scalloping.” I’ve never done either again, but still enjoy clams and scallops. I just prefer that someone else do the work. 😉

    Shirley

  15. I am from Ipswich and will always have a special love for steamers. That recipe looks so much like my families. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Wonderful post! I live in New England now–and frequent the places you mention. You’re right, no funny stuff in the true Maine chowdah. Love it.

    My clam memories go back to my father, not my mother. We dug them at low tide at the New Jersey shore. My dad and a couple of his buddies built a fire. Then they dragged a big garbage can into the bay until it was about 1/4 full of water (I think). When the water was almost boiling, the clams went in (steamers). There was a little pot of butter melting on the side of the fire. My dad showed us how to slip off the black membrane. Then we rinsed the clams in cups of clam broth from the garbage can and dipped them in butter. We even drank the broth, leaving the sand at the bottom of the cup.

    We ate them on the beach. Lots of kids, lots of running around.The wives and mothers watched and relaxed with cocktails (!) , the dads drank beer. Then we all sat around the fire, bellies full, as it grew dark. Looking back I marvel that we kids ate them–but we did, and gladly. I have a soft spot for steamers, and now you reminded me of it. Thanks!