My father died on August 29, 2010.
In the days before the funeral, family gathered to grieve and my siblings, Mary, Steve, Mark and I started dealing with the aftermath. My brother Steve is executor of the estate and started trying to deal with the documents, policies, bills and paperwork. My other siblings and I took some time to look around the house, wondering at the stuff that a person accumulates over 89 years – stacks of old Sunday School lessons, more empty margarine tubs than you could ever want, an unfinished doll house, and a file with a paper history of a life. In there I found a file my dad had kept with every canceled check I had written while I was in college (remember the Columbia Record Club? – and where could I have possibly gotten to on United Airlines for $17.85?) and a folder labeled “chowder”.
In Western New York chowder means chicken chowder. It’s a staple of summer. Of course, no one in New England would recognize it as chowder.
When I was growing up every local volunteer fire company held Field Days. My dad’s company was in Bergholz, where he grew up. Some of my earliest memories are of field days – lights, food, music and sometimes fireworks. A sort of carnival, picnic, festival, fete – what have you- that was the main fund raising event for the fire company. The Field Day would start off with a parade of the host fire company’s members accompanied by a drum and bugle corps and their washed and waxed fire engine, along with the company members, trucks and bands from other area fire companies; Adams, St. Johnsburg, Shawnee, Gatwick and others. After the parade, the firemen, their families and community would repair to a large field adjacent to the fire hall for food and drink, lasting well into the evening. There would be beer tents, hamburgers and hot dogs, clam broth, french fries, ice cream, soda, games and of course, chowder. Members of the fire company would start the night before making chowder – cutting up the vegetables and preparing the chickens to be cooked in huge cauldrons – 100 gallons each and anywhere from 4 to 6 cauldrons in a row. The goal was to have the chowder ready by the time the parade ended just before noon. You could get a bowl of chowder (back then you were served in heavy china bowls with metal utensils, like a proper meal) to eat at the field day with or without oyster crackers – seated on long trestle tables and benches; or you could get chowder to go – in whatever container you brought with you. My mom always brought her pressure cooker because it had a lid that sealed tight so she didn’t have to worry about chowder ending up all over the car on the trip home.
The field days are gone. I’m sure that the effort to pull off such an event every year took its toll on the company members. And I’m just as sure that the lawyers put the last nail in the coffin with worries about liability.
Today some people in Western New York carry on the chowder making (without the parades and drum and bugle corps) in their back yards. The most common chowder kettle is the stainless liner from a Whirlpool clothes washer that you’ve had your buddy weld a plate into the bottom to make it tight. It fits neatly on top of a 55 gallon drum with a hole cut in at the bottom to form a firebox and a small smoke pipe attached near the top. Fueled with wood, you can make about 10 or more gallons of chowder in one of these homemade mini-cauldrons.
My dad would make a batch of chowder at least once, many times twice, a year. Mom would do a lot of the work but tending the chowder was mostly a guy thing – fire and smoke and heat, you know. I suppose that’s a carry over from the field days when one member of the fire company was designated as Chowder Master – in charge of supervising the making of the chowder and deciding when it was done, or as my dad would say, “it’s soup”. After they made a kettle, mom and dad would eat it for a few days (some say it’s better the second day), but mostly they’d can and freeze it to enjoy throughout the year. In my dad’s “chowder” folder were the records of his chowder batches dating back to the early 80’s.
The most important version dates from April 13, 1983. That must have been a good batch (he assessed it to be “Real Good”) because it’s the recipe he referred to and based most other batches on over the next 25 years of records. The ingredients don’t change much but there are small changes showing that he was always trying to improve on the near prefect (at one point he eliminated minced clams in favor of clam broth, I think, because of concerns about the safety of having them in the canned product).
We now live in Wisconsin where the local version of this is called Booyah (and when we lived in Indiana there was something similar called Burgoo). Booyah is similar to chowder but not as good in my opinion – thinner, greasier and once I was served booyah with chopped chicken, bones and all. No self-respecting Bergholz Chowder Master would dare serve chowder with bones!
The pictures are from a few years back (maybe 2005 or so). The recipe is the original April 13, 1983 version in my dad’s handwriting, with notations, additions and deletions. It’s the only recipe written in two, alternating colors. I have no idea why he would do that.