1880’s Philadelphia Clam Chowder

mincing clams

mincing fresh razor clams

This great chowder is adapted from a recipe in Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book, which was originally published in 1880, by Washburn Crosby Co., the makers of what we now know as Gold Medal flour. I have a facsimile of this, which was printed in the mid-twentieth century.  (This collection also includes my all-time favorite oatmeal cookie, which I will share at a later date.)

I have enlarged upon this 19th century creation by adding such flavor/texture enhancers as garlic, onion, celery, and unpeeled potatoes.  Miss Parloa calls this receipt ‘Philadelphia’ clam chowder; it introduces the technique of straining the clams, thus lending a delicate touch to the fish soup.  I am not a big fan of clam chowder, but I love this because of its mellowness!

There is much to be said about the distinctive flavors of shellfish and fish.  Harold McGee shares this apt science in his treatise On Food and Cooking.  He teaches why ocean and freshwater creatures vary so greatly in taste, the former having a much stronger bite.

Ocean water is about 3% salt by weight, while the optimum level of all dissolved minerals inside of animal cells is less than 1%.  Consequently ocean creatures need to balance this substantial salt mineral that they are breathing in and swallowing; they do this with amino acids, amines, and urea, which their bodies produce.

Behold, these substances have different flavors!  For example the amino acid glycine is sweet, while glutamic acid is savory; shellfish are especially rich in these and other amino acids.  Unlike shellfish, finfish rely heavily on the amine TMAO,  which is largely tasteless, for processing salt.  Sharks, skates, and rays make ready the salt water with a slightly salty and bitter urea.  However, this urea and the amine TMAO are converted into stinky substances, by bacteria and fish enzymes, in these respective, dead, ocean-dwelling fish; thus, once they are killed, their meat tastes and smells powerfully bad with age, while that of their freshwater relatives doesn’t.

Freshwater fish have a gentler effect on our taste buds, because the water they live in is actually less salty than that of their cells; therefore, they do not need to accumulate these pungent amino acids, amines, or urea, which their ocean-dwelling cousins require to process the dissolved mineral salt.

You can see that different shellfish and fish supply our mouths with unique experiences.  Seawater varieties use a diversity of amino acids, amines, and urea to balance the salt in their cellular systems; these differing substances boast of wide variety of powerful tastes.  Their freshwater counterparts, which don’t require these salt equalizers, are bland by comparison.1

Miss Parloa counters the strong flavor of clam chowder by straining the clams, removing their excess liquid, which has an abundance of the above mentioned amino acids.  I take this illustrious chef’s simple inspiration and provide an even richer experience, with additional textures and mouth-watering thrills.  You’ll like this delicious, yet mild, chowder!

  1. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, 2004),  pp. 188-189.

Philadelphia Clam Chowder  Adapted from a recipe in Miss Parloa’s Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book (Silver Dollar City, MO: Washburn-Crosby Co., 1880).  Yields: 8 servings.  Total prep time: 1 hr & 30 min/  active prep time: 30 min/  cooking time: 1 hr.

Note: you may make 2/3’s of this recipe, if you don’t have large enough pots for the makeshift double boiler (see step 1 for photo and directions).

1 1/2 tbsp oil  (Coconut or avocado oil is best.)

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 tbsp butter

3 tbsp flour

6 ounce drained weight minced clams, or 3-6.5 ounce cans, strained  (May use 6 ounces fresh razor clams, chopped fine, see top photo.)

2 stalks celery, chopped fine

3 tbsp parsley, chopped fine

1 lb potatoes, unpeeled, cut in small pieces

5 large cloves garlic, minced  (May use 3 cubes of frozen garlic from Trader Joe’s for easy prep.)

1 1/2 quarts milk

1 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste  (Real Salt is best; available in health section of local supermarkets.)

1/2 tsp white pepper, or to taste

  1. make-shift double boiler

    make-shift double boiler

    Heat coconut oil in a 4-quart pot that will sit inside a slightly larger pot to make a double boiler.  See photo.  (If you don’t have two large pots, you may make 2/3’s of the recipe to fit in a 2 1/2-quart saucepan, which in turn will rest over boiling water in a larger pot.)

  2. When a small piece of onion sizzles in oil, add the rest of the onions and sweat (cook until translucent).  Remove from heat when done.
  3. Fill larger pot 2/5’s full of water and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  4. Meantime melt butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat.  Add flour and stir constantly with a wire whisk, cook until light brown in color, set aside.
  5. Spray celery, parsley, and potatoes with inexpensive, effective vegetable spray: fill a spray bottle with a mixture of 97% distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide; spray vegetables and let sit for 3 min; rinse really well.  Meantime go to next step.
  6. Drain canned clams in a colander.  If using fresh razor clams, drain and chop fine (see top photo).
  7. Chop all vegetables and garlic; add to cooked onions, which have been removed from heat.
  8. Add milk, clams, salt, and pepper to the pan of vegetables.  Fit this smaller pan into the larger pot, so it sits above the boiling water (see photo).  Watch water level while cooking to make sure water doesn’t boil dry.  Cook chowder until potatoes are soft, about 50 minutes.
  9. Beat in roux (butter/flour mixture) with a big spoon, cooking 5 more minutes, or until soup is thickened.  Stir constantly.
  10. Adjust seasonings and serve.  You may freeze leftovers.  When you heat thawed chowder, it will be of a thinner consistency.  If desired, you may thicken with a small amount of roux-about 1 tbsp of melted butter cooked with an equal amount of flour.  This amount will be adequate to thicken 4 leftover servings; see step 3 for details on thickening with roux.
  11. I am passionate about this soup!

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