If it were gooseberries which inspired me to start this blog, it is clam chowder which has brought me back here. Rather disparate, I know. But last night, after nostalgically musing about my mothballed food memoir blog on FB, two writerly friends agreed: “De-mothball it!” I had just posted about the clam chowder I cooked last night. And about Netflixing Julie & Julia, based on the blog-become-famous when Julie Powell, the almost 30 year old frustrated-writer-turned-call-centre-worker, turns to Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, and sets out to cook each of 524 recipes in the famous cookbook by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle: in 365 days. And I was reminded that I’d started this blog shortly after watching that movie, with my then love interest and now husband who was already impressed by the meals I cooked for him, for us, during our burgeoning romance. It was romance for me almost at first sight: he took a little longer to realise that it’s much more than the meals I cooked for him when he came over that he loved about me. We were sitting in Fournos, with soccer FIFA world Cup fever all around us since it was hosted by SA: the barista had swirled 2010 with some exclamation marks on top of our foamy cappuccinos; and behind my almost-boyfriend Peter there were rows and rows of gooseberry preserve picking up the soft glow of a winter sun from a nearby East facing window. I told him the story of gooseberries sprawling their way up and over carefully erected clambering bean teepees made from reeds in my grandfather’s garden, and how I loved picking them out from their papery lantern-like casings, lukewarm from the sun and plopping them into my mouth. “Why don’t you write about that?” he said. So I did.
And last night, nostalgic for my blog, my now husband said: “I wish you would write about this” as I sat at our dining room table by a warm, last-of-winter wood burning stove glowing in the darkening room, feeling whimsical, and clam chowder barely bubbling on the stove just over there. I had never made it for him in these almost ten years that we’ve been together. I had made a corn chowder on one of the iciest winter nights this year, about three weeks ago, but only because I could not find canned clams.
Clam Chowder. Does that not just sound so exotic? I can’t remember where I read about it first. It could have been in “Anne of Green Gables”, at a time when “clam” and “chowder” were both magical words and concepts and which an 11 year old me had to look up, painstakingly by today’s standards, in a dictionary, which revealed that it was probably some creamy, soupy dish thickened with flour and cream, and clams, picked free of their shells, with chunky potatoes and fragrant onion and celery, served in big steaming bowls with chunks of bread. I did not know what clams looked like then. My small-town upbringing on the shoestring budget of a teacher-father could not bring into my culinary experience any of the sort, though somehow tinned smoked mussels and oysters were occasionally bought mostly as a treat for my father: their smokey, oily taste a wholly grown-up experience as he offered me a mouthful at the end of a cocktail fork, not deterred by my crinkled up nose against the unfamiliar smell. I did not spit or gagged. I loved it. But the shape and sweetness of clams I really discovered well into my early thirties, when I started experimenting with Italian cooking and found clams-on-the-shell at a local fishmonger. Spaghetti alle Vongole was one of my dinner party show-offy meals: clam shells clacking in the pasta, white wine and garlic and parsley amalgamated into a sweet and tangy sauce, swoon worthy. I imagined living in an Italian sea-side village where I would make my own pasta and write while looking out over a wholly unfamiliar sea, some local fisherman looking up as he passed, ringing out a greeting: “Ciao Bella!”, and I’d smile and wave and feel foreign and at home at the same time.
But in my late twenties I was just divorced, with two little sons, living in a modest semi in Melville, struggling through a thesis for my MA in Psychology in my early thirties, and closest I got to Italian cooking was making spaghetti Bolognese but with a Marcella Hazan recipe from a book a recent lover had given me when he buggered off back to the UK. And in there was the Vongole recipe.
But the chowder took me longer to find a recipe for, even though, in my early twenties I longed to experience the New England I had read of, and in my tweens, the chowder: of Prince Edward Island of Anne of Green Gables, and Nova Scotia in other books, and in the Maine of Stephen King’s books which I’d tortured myself with.
So when I made it last night, for the second time in my life, it felt deeply nostalgic, even though canned clams in brine had to do (bottled clam juice is still not available in SA, I think, even now when my thirties and even forties have firmly been left behind). But chopped celery and onion and carrots and cubed potatoes and flour and bacon and cream and chicken stock and two tins of baby clams and salty pan-fried croutons of stale ciabatta, rendered a romantic bowl of chowder-by-a-fire-with-a-beloved, and nudged me to write again about food and memory and meaning of meals yearned for, searched for, cooked and eaten with people I love.