This is an article that was originally published in the July 9, 1974 edition of the Niagara Falls Gazette and reprinted in the July/August, 2010 issue of Der Brief, the newsletter of the Historical Society of North German Settlements in Western New York. My family was from Bergholz.
I don’t remember people standing in line for 3 hours but there certainly was a line. Otherwise, this article rings true.
By Ruth Fees
WHEATFIELD – Chowder-making has been a tradition with the Bergholz firefighters for over half a century, and last week they, with their wives and children, put in countless hours preparing the ingredients for over 700 gallons of chicken chowder for the Bergholz Volunteer Fire Company’s 54th annual inspection and field day, July fourth.
About 7 a.m. the day before the chowder bash, Louis Heuer (Note: I believe this should read, Lewis Heuer, my dad’s cousin who, with his brother Elmer, owned Heuer’s Market in Niagara Falls) and Wimpy Shimschack drove up to the firehall to unload the meat, chicken , and green vegetables to be used in the chowder. The canned goods and vegetables had already been stacked up inside the building. The two men spent about an hour unloading 1,000 pounds of chicken, 400 pounds of choice beef and 500 pounds of beef bones, in addition to the endless quantities of celery, green peppers and onions. Potatoes had been soaking in vats, waiting to be cleaned. The tear-jerking job of of onion peeling is done by the men.
Huge cast-iron kettles weighing 300 pounds apiece were lowered into their cooking jackets and smoke stacks were attached. Bergholz firefighters fill nine such kettles to the brim with chowder for their annual field day activities. The kettles hold 79 gallons each. The ladle alone dips up a gallon at a time.
Additional chowder makers drifted in around nine am. , and things really got under way. The kettles were scrubbed and scalded, and the chickens inspected and washed.
Beef, chicken and bones are all cooked separately. Chickens are cooked whole, cooled, skinned and boned for dicing. The cooks explained that old potatoes are used to make the chowder because new ones don’t hold up well and tend to overcook. The spuds are invariably ordered from a local farmer a year in advance. Before city water was available in the Bergholz hamlet, tankers drew water to the chowder kettles.
Until six years ago wood was used to fire the kettles. Nowadays both natural and propane gas are used.
As the work day progressed, women arrived to battle the mounds of green vegetables; endless batches of potatoes were eyed and diced. The used to be pared by hand, but a peeler now eliminates that job. Giblets are simmered for the help to eat, along with sandwiches and other refreshments, during the long day. The women have long cit-chats with their friends and neighbors while working.
There’s always a group hard at work. Some may leave for short periods, but others come in to take over. Children help to sort the 60 pounds of dried lima beans.
Adolph Wiegand, one of the chowdermakers, explained that firemen used to buy beef on the hoof, and then cut up the meat under the supervision of the local butcher. They also ground their own hamburger. “We only paid 32 cents a pound, dressed weight,” he said.
When all the meat and chicken were cooked, they were cooled before the tedious chore of cutting and dicing began.
Later in the day, all the broths were strained from the kettles into stainless steel vats which were placed into a trough, water cooled, and then packed in ice until the next morning. Any fat on the broth surface was removed before returning the stock to the kettles.
Firemen were up a the crack of dawn July 4, to begin the second phase of assembling the chowder.
By 6 am., fires were relit beneath the kettle jackets and all green vegetables prepared the day before were simmered for a few hours.
The came the tubs of vegetables, meats, chicken and other ingredients; six kettles were filled to capacity. As soon as one kettle of chowder had been emptied the cooks assembled another batch, until nine kettles of chowder had been cooked.
Before the ingredients had been blended in the pots for cooking, chowder lovers had already lined up a hundred strong, and the kept coming. It was a long wait. Some people stood in line about three hours. The carried all sorts of containers – buckets, pots and pans, thermos jugs, even turkey roasters. The line always forms early because no one wants to be left with an empty pot. The chowder-makers never have to worry about leftovers.
It was hot and muggy that morning, and the heat from the jackets made it difficult to stand near the bubbling pots as the cooks rotated the ingredients with wooden paddles.
When the kettles reached a boil, they practically stirred on their own; the broth began to take on its true color as the contents started to flavor. The aroma was swept by the breeze clear to the church yard and another long line was formed by those who would be spoon dipping on the premises
One woman, standing in line with a large bucket, said, “Every year I buy more, hoping to freeze some. It really holds the heat and I set down on the stove to cool. But the family keeps dipping in and I never have much left.”
And its taste? A Buffalo chowder-lover said, “Chowder is a lot like peanuts to me! The more I eat, the more I want. I can down four bowls at a crack, but keep that under your hat.”