They Stole Our Soup! The Native Origins of ‘New England’ Clam Chowder
You may never have heard of Quahog Chowder, but there’s a good chance this soup is already on your list of favorites. Better known as New England Clam Chowder, this tasty fusion has a history as long as a Cape Cod beach. Quahogs, a large, hard-shelled clam, can be found as far south as Virginia, but many believe the tastiest ones are found in the colder waters from Connecticut to Maine. Along these shores, quahogs and other types of clams, shellfish, and seafood have always been enjoyed in a rich broth-based stew.
The original ingredients have changed only a little over the last 400 years. Linda Coombs, program coordinator of the Aquinnah Cultural Center on Martha’s Vineyard, said, “A staple of our dishes were corn and beans and you could make a soup or a stew with that, and you could add meat or any kind of shellfish, such as quahogs and clams.”
After contact, the corn was replaced with potatoes and local meats such as goose or duck have been replaced with pork. Today, New England Clam Chowder is known for its cream- or flour-thickened base. Remembering her childhood, Coombs said, “When my grandmother used to make it there were almost whole clams in it, with potatoes, onions, and broth. As I grew up, I realized the clear broth was the old way to make it.”
Before colonization, Mohegans, Pequots and many other tribes built traps in the rivers to catch fish, and at lower tides, clammed for quahogs and smaller clams, oysters and mussels. Much of this food, including lobster, was ignored by the European settlers, but according to the website What’s Cooking America, “Clams became accepted in time, but it is on record that in 1620s the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they were ‘the meanest of God’s blessings.’”
When those pilgrims changed their minds, they quickly took the soup as their own, renaming it New England Clam Chowder. “We think of it as food appropriation,” said Loren Spears, executive director of the Narragansett’s Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. “I think it would be respectful if people called it Narragansett Chowder or Indigenous Clam Chowder or something along those lines. They didn’t eat these things before their encounter with the indigenous people of this land.”
Reading Faith Davison’s Mohegan Archives, it’s easy to envision the coastline before the colonizers destroyed much of the area’s aqua-culture. The rivers still ran thick with a wide variety of fish along Connecticut’s white sand beaches. Holes were dug along the shores and lined with red hot stones, then thick blankets of seaweed were laid on the rocks. A layer of shellfish was placed on the seaweed, and another layer of seaweed covered that. In this way, clams were steamed open, and the first clambakes were enjoyed. If you continued along the beach, you may have come upon fires heating up stones, with four stakes carefully placed around, holding skewers of roasting fish.
In Davison’s research, she found a description of Mohegan’s soups and stews from the late 1500s. They were cooked in huge earthen pots, which a document from the National Humanities Center described as good as anything made on a European pottery wheel. The soup was boiled by adding hot stones into watertight vessels that “seethed” all day long.
The importance of clams in the local diet was evidenced by the tall piles of shells that dotted the shoreline, even along the coast of inland rivers far from the sea. Davison said long after the English arrived, Connecticut’s tribes still made their summer journey to the shore to gather clams and dry them for winter food storage.
Clamming is far from a lost art. Mashpee Wampanoag elder and wampum designer Carol Lopez said, “The whole Cape has a lot of quahogs. We always have plenty because we have water on both sides of us,” she said.
Chowder is served year-round, and is still an important staple in many of the tribes’ diets. “When I open the quahog, I save the juice and the meat, and I make stuffed clams, pies, quahog cakes, quahog chowder. Nothing goes to waste,” Lopez said.
The revised recipe has been enjoyed by all, and in the 1920s, the creamy version was served in the restaurant owned by 97-year-old Eleanor Spears Dove’s grandfather. Having inherited the family talent for food preparation, Eleanor and her husband Ferris Dove opened up the Dovecrest Restaurant where she made an award-winning chowder with sautéed onions and quahogs.
Paulla Dove Jennings said her mother Eleanor’s chowder was delicious, and that she also used to make the best quahog pie. Paulla’s sister Dawn Dove added, “It’s pretty easy. You make a chowder that is not quite as thin, with not as much liquid in it, and you make a top crust, and put it in a casserole dish. It is really good.”
“My father had a walk-in refrigerator in the garage,” Paulla said, “and he would sit out there opening the fresh quahogs. He’d open three and eat the fourth and if you were standing there, you’d get one, too. And they were delicious! You didn’t need hot sauce, lemon or anything. Just the juice from the clams and the water from the ocean made them taste crisp and fresh. And of course we used the quahog shells to make wampum.”
Inside the Tomaquag Museum, Jennings pointed to a strand of wampum beads dated 4,000 years ago. “The creator is so wise,” she said. “They give us something to eat, something to drink, and then something to bead from. We use that shell to make beautiful beadwork, an adornment, to make a gift, to tell a story. It’s all right there.”
The elder Lopez designs and creates wampum jewelry and other adornments and arts, and she agrees. “Each side (of the quahog shell) matches exactly and that’s how I can make earrings in pairs. It takes a lot of time to make jewelry.”
“History tells us that Native Americans made holes in the shells and traded with the English. They started to use it as money, but we used it as adornment,” Lopez said, as she recalled another charming Cape Cod memory. “I am 80, and when I was growing up, we used the meat and threw the shells in the path or the driveway,” she recalled.
The crushed shells are still used instead of paving in Cape Cod and other Northeastern areas. They are environmentally more sound than asphalt, provide nutrients to the soil, and make a more stable path than crushed stone. Maybe best of all, they serve as a subtle reminder of the importance and the history of the quahog.
This story was originally published on Jul 4, 2015.