16 March 2010


Miles Davis makes some pretty damn good chowder, I must say. It was an honor to have him in the kitchen.

Okay, so he did not really make chowder today, in my kitchen. I made the chowder, he provided the inspiration and the music. It all started with a notion taking hold in my weary headbone on my evening commute last Friday evening. That, and hunger for some fruits o' the sea.

Chowder, it seems, is never very far from my mind. Sometimes it sits in front of me, like a dog on the porch eager to take me for a run. Other times it sits quietly in the shade, out of vision but faintly there like a ghost. It watches, it waits, it knows I'll turn around and say "What are you doing there, you scamp?". It is that turning around that makes me make chowder. 

I grew up near the water, rivers, creeks, bays and ocean. Crabs and fish were the most likely suspects when I ate seafood, but chowder making was nowhere on the radar as a kid. My first experience with it was the canned soup variety (name rhymes with "Shambles Monkey"), a quasi-New England clam chowder analog that seemed more about the salt and the thick than anything else. And I ate heroic quantities of it, not knowing any better and thinking it quite fine.

It was much later, as an adult, that I had a true clam chowder. It was a revelation. I was vacationing on Cape Cod, and dined at a restaurant that had quite the reputation for a "true" clam chowder. Later, I found out this meant it was made with real salt pork and not bacon. Anyway, it was so good, I wondered just what in the world I had been eating all those years before.

Subsequent visits to New England (and sampling chowders made elsewhere) piqued my curiosity and got me interested in chowder making. Problem was, I had no background to work with, no tradition of the thing, so I had to rely on what I hoped was good guidance I picked up from chefs and food writers whom I trusted to be making the real thing. I have practiced quite a bit over the past few years, but I never really strayed that far from what most folks would consider a traditional approach. It seems quite a few relatively modern approaches have celery and onions as mainstay vegetables. Potatoes are so integral to the dish (at least as far as I can tell) that to make it without them, well...it just would not be chowder.

So last Friday I was cogitating on chowder, putting together a big pot in my mind so I could fill out my grocery list for some weekend eats. The vegetables I would get from the supermarket, the seafood (because that is what struck my fancy) I would get from my favorite seafood store. Fish and shrimp, yes, sir...Sunday evening finds me in the kitchen, gettin' my chef on, and Miles is playing on the stereo. Potatoes, onion, fish, shrimp...and no celery. No celery. So what now? Miles made a suggestion or two...

If jazz is the art of improvisation, surely cooking cannot be far behind. I dithered a bit, but that smooth trumpet in the background and the cool bass gave me the idea. If I had no celery, then I would use carrot. I didn't know if the carrots would make me a heretic or a jazz master, but it is what I had.

This was the first time I had made chowder of any kind without celery, so I was a little hesitant. Plus, to give it a bit of a kick, I had some serrano chiles, fresh and green, so...into the pot they would go. But the music spurred me on, I diced the carrots, minced the chiles and cast them in.

The kitchen, the whole apartment, smelled delish, and I was picking up confidence. Miles kept going, urging me on...watching the potatoes boil and bubble I remembered I had some yellow corn in the freezer. Listening to that jazz, and feeling the oats of the first day of daylight savings time, I reckoned some corn might just be a welcome traveler on this road trip. I crossed my fingers and hit the accelerator...

The moment of truth came after I ladled up a big bowl full of what looked to be a mighty fine composition, a riff on what I had been thinking of as chowder. I set it on the table, "Kind of Blue" drifting from the speakers behind me, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I had my own form of jazz right there in the bowl. It wasn't New England clam chowder from Massachusetts, it wasn't Frogmore Stew from South Carolina, it was Mid-Atlantic Seafood Chowder a la Gumbo-style...

...and with that first mouthful of seafood goodness, the heretic and the jazzman shook hands, grinned and sat down to dinner in good company. Miles and me, we make a good team.


  1. You surely do sound like a good team...am a tiny bit jealous now.
    You make being in the cooking sound like fun; which it is not for me but I am getting inspired...

  2. Great choice of music! I've been into Miles Davis since the 70's, when I was dating a jazz drummer. And your chowder sounds delicious, cher! Cheers!

  3. Serranos in the chowder?! That's rebel stuff there. Must be the Miles. Of course, I'm from Texas, and am of the belief that pretty much everything's better with serranos.

    Strangely, Miles Davis once hit on the mother of a friend of mine. He was supposed to be good friends with her husband. I think Miles was rather naughty. And she was pretty cute.

  4. It's all music, and all of the best music is improv. When two good musicians get cookin' you can't miss.

  5. Very nice sir! Growing up in and around Boston, I'm a very big chowder fan. I too would rather skip the celery. I find that it can over power.

    My father was a huge fan of Miles Davis. He's been gone now for 16 years last month. I'm finding with each passing year that I share more and more of his tastes, Jazz being one of the most recent discoveries.

    I don't recall if he liked chowder though. Then again, who doesn't?!

  6. Miles is a great cook, by proxy.

  7. You and Miles ROCK! By the time I finished reading, I wanted that bowl of chowder!!!

  8. You make me want to be a chowder lover.

  9. Mmm... chowder. Who cares what you put in it, as long as it tastes good.

  10. I grew up on Chesapeake Bay and my father taught me how to make clam chowder using the liquor from the clams. He would add in onions, potatoes, and celery and an abundance of clams. Very different from New England or Manhattan style but just right for an old Virginian.


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