Nantucket Chowder Discord
In 1851, Herman Melville described the chowder at Try Pots, a Nantucket chowder house, in his epic novel Moby Dick:
“…a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! Hearken to me.”
While the Try Pots, whether a fictional chowder house or once a Nantucket landmark, is no longer around, chowder is most certainly prevalent on that foggy island out at sea, affectionately known as the Grey Lady. As a lifelong summer resident and a longtime chowder eater, I, of course, have that one chowder that I am as devoted to as Ahab was to finding Moby Dick. This thick, creamy delectable chowder that I so lovingly speak of hails from none other than the ferry boat: the Steamship Authority. I was raised on this chowder, eating it on cold, damp nights throughout the fall and on hot summer evenings on those glorious journeys to and from the island. With a healthy serving of butter, cream, big juicy clams, thick-cut potatoes — the secret to a good New England chowder — and of course, a pinch of excitement and anticipation in each bowl…Oh sweet friends! Hearken to me. This is the only chowder for this girl.
My longtime island compatriots, however, had other (loud) opinions on the chowder matter. One friend chose the chowder at Slip 14, a small restaurant right on the water that has killer seafood and sangria that packs a serious punch. We’ve spent many a late afternoon here, having drinks, watching boats glide into the harbor, making plans and giggling over ridiculous looking sunburns. I reluctantly tried the chowder here. I took a spoonful, frowned, set my spoon down and shrugged. “It’s good, just not the best.” My dear friend exclaimed, “But the bacon, it’s the bacon!” If I wanted bacon, I’d eat a piece of bacon.
The next enemy, errr friend, tried to convince me that the airport has the best chowder. Now this rivalry is multifaceted: flying versus ferry. I’m a purist. I grew up doing the five-hour drive and two-hour ferry, but since she hails from the South, she grew up flying and her chowder acted as a comfort food for those late August days when she would sadly be waiting to board her flight home. It may be as thick and creamy as my Steamship chowder but I think it’s a little bitter…
The third and final friend (let’s be honest, it’s a miracle I have any friends left after this little food war I started) is a celebrated chef on the island. I value his opinion on all food matters immensely and was excited to hear his take, even if I was going to keep my stubborn face on. He took me to the Lobster Trap, probably the only place left on the island where you can go get a simple steamed lobster and bowl of chowder. And the chowder: awesome clams, thick potatoes, no fussy bacon but horror upon horror, it was one of those thin chowders! I turned to my friend with a look of pure disbelief on my face. Is this milk? Are you mad? And you call yourself a chef? With what I swear were tears in his eyes he looked at me and mumbled that this was the first chowder he had eaten when he moved here ten years ago. OK, I understand, it was his first but for his sake, I certainly hope it won’t be his last, although that might have been his last meal with me.
What I noticed about all of my friends’ passionate preferences, mine included, was that they are all tied to somewhere sentimental and significant on the island. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all steadfast and stubborn chowder devotees, but chowder just doesn’t taste the same off island. Maybe it’s the fog, or the cobblestones but there’s just something about chowder on Nantucket that makes it taste just that much better. So I guess we can all agree on something: any chowder tastes better on Nantucket. But the Steamship is still the best.