The Indians made it first. Just how perfectly no one knows. They taught the white man just how perfect was that decoction. But, still, if you want the best you must still go to the sea-side Indians.
So we start for "The Neck," a reservation on the east end of Long Island, where a remnant of the Shinnecock Indian tribe persists. And after much persuasion obtain the culinary services of Mary Emma (Bunn), and our objective is half accomplished. For Mary Emma has a son, one Charles, the tribal head, who knows the ways of ducks and geese, of the winds and waters and the tides, also the lands beneath the waters. He can find fish, oysters, and clams for to make chowder one must have clams.
Captain John Smith, by 1616, had learned their use from the Indians. "You shall scarce find any bay or shallow shore, or cove or sand, where you may not take "clampes" . . . at your pleasure. It is more difficult to find them today, but Chief Charles knows where and how. Give him your commission through his mother--and within four hours the "clampes" will be delivered. If you are a stranger and show sufficient interest, he may take you with him--for a consideration.
Caption on back of photograph reads: "This is an excellent photo of the full blood type of the Shinnecock Indian. The man is Charles Somer Bunn, who at the time of this photo in 1909, was the best known guide among the Shinnecock Indians. Sportsmen from all over hired the services of Charlie Bunn and followed him to the haunts of the black duck, on the marshes situated on the edges of Shinnecock Bay. He bears a striking resemblance to the Indians of the Northwest coast. While conducting research in 1937, I stayed in the home of Charles Bunn. His mother, Mary Emma Bunn, like her son, exhibited all of the physical traits of the full blood Indian. Indian physical types, such as Charles Bunn, are exceedingly rare among the Shinnecocks of today. His passing was lamented by many who had come to know him."And if you get the chance, go with him. Take old clothes or a bathing suit. Wear shoes that won't be hurt by water, and ride in his wheezing auto to Cold Springs or at Sebonac [on the eastern slope of the Shinnecock Hills]. Go, if you get the chance and catch your own, or at least watch him do it.
There are two varieties of clams (and many of chowder). Soft clams and hard clams, they are called. Soft clams grow in the mud along shore and are dug at low tide. They are sometimes hidden a foot deep but have a neck long enough to reach the surface. As the tide recedes you can see them spit. Undermine them carefully or you will break their shells and fill them with grit. On Cape Cod soft clams are used in chowder and milk is added at the last. But that is another story: for we are on Long Island. Let me add that "Quahogs" is the Cape name for hard clams. I have never heard that name outside of New England. In Labrador, "Cocks" and "Hens" are the designations for soft clams, but that too is purely local usage.
On Long Island, a hard clam is a round clam, and a round clam is a hard clam. Both words are descriptive, for the shells are round and they are hard. There is no fear of breaking them, they grow under water and at low tide, you wade in, sometimes up to your arm pits, to rake them off the bottom. Occasionally they are found among the stones; more often, hidden an inch or so down in the sand or mud. You use an Eagle clawed rake on a six foot handle and scrape around until you find them. Not so easy as it sounds, so it is better to go with Chief Bunn, if he will take you. It is rather hopeless to try it alone, for chowder clams are big, big like the palm of your hand. "They grow best," so Mary Emma says (and she should know for it is an Indian tradition of centuries growth), "they grew best for chowder off Cow Neck Point 'eastard' of Sebonac Gut."
Leaving the car at West Neck Landing, your guide will take you a mile down the harbor in his leaky boat, and them outside through the "gut" into Peconic Bay. He has planned to arrive on a falling tide. The flats are just beginning to show. In the offing you may see a couple of stately yachts at anchor. The names you ask of Charles? He will tell you. You find out they have familiar names to you for the newspapers mention them and their owners. If the Chief is feeling good, he will also tell you things the papers won't print about the yachts, their owners, and the golf club, and "the Hills." Where his ancestors hunted, the four hundred now drive their golf balls, with the Indian boys for caddies. If Chief Charles gets started he will tell you more than news or gossip. He has been to the Carlisle and other Indian schools; he has ideas. He will quote something from the Epistle of James about the "howling hills." Likely, he will not talk at all.
The boat is pulled up on the flat. You wade out in water knee deep and begin to scratch the bottom with your eagle armed rake and at length until you hit a nest. One, then another. Sometimes it takes an hour to find half a dozen. Then again, you may have a run of luck and get a peck in "next to no time." The Chief will not take you to the best ground, but you will come away in a reasonable time with a "mess."
Back in town Mary Emma has a hot wood wife--"Nothing like that for a squaw's cookin'," she affirms. Note the care with which she lays out the big clams. (The little ones are rejected--they will serve other purposes than chowder.) For a clam is mostly muscle, and these old veterans with fifteen winters behind them can hold on like grim death. "Let them set a while, they'll open up easier." Reassured, I suppose, and responding to the warmth of the kitchen, the big bi-valves relax their tension. Then deftly and swiftly the old Indian slips in a knife at the corner of the shell where there is a slight bevel. With a quick turn of the hand she empties the shell of its contents, cutting the muscle loose, and the meat falling kerplunk into the wooden chopping bowl. "Save the juice, that's the best part." "Not so fat as they might be . . . shell pretty black, must have come out of the mud." "Law, that Charles. He knows I like them out of the sand."
From the iron pot on the stove comes a fragrant whiff of frying bacon. "Couldn't get no salt pork. What we comin' to? Just bacon, not so good." But it smells good as cross-sections of onions are added, they curl into brown ribbons. And the aroma takes on new fragrance. The old woman latches tight the dining room door and opens a window.
"Some folks don't like onions. I do. You can't make chowder without onions, but you must hide 'em."
The clams--a baker's dozen or more--are chopped with an old fashioned chopping knife. (Mary Emma's has a whale bone handle. Her husband made it at sea some sixty years ago.) Then into the hot-fried-bacon-onion they go, and the sizzling stops. Water, "a quart or so" is added and the kettle goes to the back of the stove, there to simmer for an indefinite period, "the longer the better," says the expert.
It sounds simple, but though you watch a dozen times, you may not catch it for the real tricks are not divulged. No good cook tells all; nor could she tell, if she would.
As if to look at the weather vane or to prognosticate for rain, the Old Indian shuffles in her carpet slippers toward the garden, with her cane knocking down a weed here and there. Watch carefully out of the corner of your eye, for she snips a bit of "yarb," be it thyme or marjoram or sage, and hides it in her apron. Sooner or later it finds its way into the simmering iron pot. That is the secret. It can't be told, but in her recipe books.
"'Mixed with brains!' my dear old mother would say," says Mary Em.
A bay leaf from the cupboard, half a pinch of clove, some white pepper. Pepper and salt go in--sparingly, but repeatedly, until the whole is seasoned "to taste." (Mary's taste, which presently shall be yours.)
Forty minutes before serving, after that indefinite period of "setting back and simmering," a half dozen beautifully sliced potatoes are added. Shinnecock is in the midst of the finest potato country on the Eastern seaboard and this variety will not cook away into starch. A big can of tomatoes goes in or "use fresh ones if you can get them." Then a thirty minutes fire boiling--water enough added to keep from burning--and you have Class Chowder--an emulsion of Pelecypodem deliciousness.
Any experiment repeated and repeated will give you the clue. Better engage Mary Emma and enjoy the product of her art. I once asked her to let me put her recipe in print. She gave it. It was as ordinary as could be, in black and white. She simply can't tell how--but she can do it, every time. No, it is never quite twice alike. Always a little different and each time a little better than the last.
Mary Emma reminds me of a great professor I knew. For thirty years his students, inspired by his lectures, have been urging a book. But he once confided to me that his lectures change. So long as he is growing why should he publish, and when he has stopped growing (inconceivable to me) they won't be worth publishing! Most generally, however, he simply says, with a twinkle in his eye, "If I'd publish everyone would know what I know, and then no one would come to my classes."
So this is not an exact recipe. Far from it. Mary Emma's chowder can't be imitated and no clams grow (in spite of Captain John Smith) like those on Sebonac Beach off Cow Neck Point to east'ard of the Old Gut.
Photo credit: The East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection.