Red, White, and OOH
July 2, 2017
Happy 4th of July! Tuesday commemorates 241 years of the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain and 133 years since the French government gifted the Statue of Liberty to the United States in 1884. This year, the holiday trails Canada’s national celebration, Canada Day, and its efforts to highlight its own history of cultural, ethnic, and social diversity, which, for me at least, provides an interesting point of comparison for what is arguably the most uniquely recognizable display of “American-ness,” and the impact other people’s histories have on that sense of belonging.
When I think of the 4th of July, I’m inevitably reminded of my childhood, spent swimming at the public pool my family belonged to, eating soft custard, and watching Zambelli fireworks go off overhead, to the “ooh”s and “ahhh”s of most of the children (and probably half the adults) who were also watching the light show. As an adult, these memories feel a lot like a scene from The Sandlot (they’re not), and I realize the fireworks were probably a little closer than they should’ve been, but it made for great entertainment. My perspective on the concept of what it means to celebrate the holiday has also changed considerably; I still enjoy relaxing and spending time grilling food in the park with friends and family, but with the knowledge that, for many, July 4 means a different kind of independence – and a new identity as a member of a new country. Listening to people who have come to the United States from all over the world, bringing their memories, traditions, and the dishes that tie those two things together with them, talk about what the things we often don’t think much about or perhaps even find mundane – national holidays in the US, first-time voter status, or just wandering the aisles of a big-box store like Costco – provides a unique and profound approach to a day most immediately identifiable with American culture and identity.
Because I’m a bit of a history nerd, the other thing that comes to mind when I think of July 4 is the efforts that brought the United States from a collection of British properties to a world power, and the city at the center of it all, Boston. Boston is, in my opinion, the only place to get good quality clam chowder; I don’t know if it’s something in the water, the quality of the clams you get there, or just the way eating somewhere while on vacation makes the food taste better, but it’s just better there than anywhere else. The word “chowder” originally comes from the French term chaudière, or cauldron, and has often been referred to as “Yankee Doodle in a kettle.”
Lacking the opportunity to get on a plane and fly up to Boston for the day to eat chowder (pronounced “chowdah”) while sitting next to Boston Harbor or outside the entrance to the John F. Kennedy Museum and Presidential Library (what’s better than eating seafood, next to the sea?), I decided to whip up a 4th of July party of my own, with some baked beans, cornbread, and, of course, Boston-style clam chowder.
Interestingly, while considered to be one of the most iconically “American” (and regionally contested) foods, clam chowder itself, like the people who live here, has an immigrant past. Originally brought to New England by fishermen from France and Nova Scotia who settled in the region with their families, clam chowder was gradually refined from a rough combination of the day’s catches, flour, salted pork fat, and hard biscuits in stew format, to a hearty and readily-available meal which gained popularity in the 1700s. The dish developed a reputation as a regional staple in the 1830s and ultimately became synonymous with New England cuisine, where it remains to this day. Today, several variations on the classic New England clam chowder exist, including the thinner, tomato-infused Manhattan clam chowder, clear Rhode Island chowder, and even a version of the dish known as Cabo clam chowder, which features Mexican-style flavours, such as jalapeños, black beans, cilantro, cumin, and lime, though the original, New England clam chowder is, really, the only way to make it, in my opinion.
The recipe for the clam chowder is my take on a recipe originally posted in the Boston Globe; I find it much easier (and more cost-effective) to buy canned clams in clam juice than to buy and steam clams in their shells:
- 3 (6.5 oz.) cans Bumble Bee chopped clams in clam juice (available in packs of 6 at Costco or individually in most stores)
- 5 slices bacon
- 6 tbsp. butter
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 tsp. dried French thyme (available at Trader Joe’s)
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 6 tbsp. flour
- 3 large potatoes, rinsed and diced into 1/2-1 inch pieces (leave skin on potatoes)
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 2 cups whole or 2% milk
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Line baking sheet with parchment paper and place raw bacon, spaced evenly apart, on the parchment paper. Bake 30-35 minutes or until just crispy.
- Remove bacon from oven and set aside on paper towel-lined plate to cool and absorb any extra bacon grease. Chop bacon strips into 1/2 inch pieces when cool and leave on plate until needed.
- While bacon is cooking, melt butter in medium-large pot. Add celery, onion, thyme, pepper, and cayenne pepper, and cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Mix flour in and stir 3-5 more minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add clam juice from clams to mixture and stir until mixture has thickened slightly, about 5-10 minutes.
- Add potatoes, cream, and milk, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until potatoes are fork-tender (about 30 minutes). Stir occasionally to prevent mixture from burning or sticking to pot.
- Add clams and bacon to pot.
- Cook mixture on medium heat until clams are chewy without being gummy and potatoes are completely tender (about 15 minutes).
- Serve (with soup crackers, if desired). Enjoy!
The other dish, the Cast Iron Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread, is a recipe I created a few years ago, as a way of adding some colour to my cornbread and spicing up the usual dishes that decorated the table at Thanksgiving. This dish is relatively inexpensive and easy to make; all you need are an 8-inch, cast-iron skillet (a baking dish will work just as well, but I recommend using the cast iron if you have it available), 20-30 minutes, and the following ingredients:
- 1.5 cups Harina P.A.N. (available in the International Goods section of most grocery stores or at any Latin American goods store; standard yellow or white cornmeal will work if you prefer to use it instead)
- 1 level cup flour
- 6 tbsp. sugar
- 1.5 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 3 large eggs
- 1 stick butter, melted
- 1.5 cups grated sharp cheddar, plus 1/4 cup extra for topping
- 1/2 can yellow corn, with juice
- 1/3 cup jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Mix ingredients together in medium-sized bowl by hand or with a large spoon, until just combined; be careful not to overmix. If mixture is dry after combining ingredients, slowly add extra liquid from corn until mixture is the consistency of damp clay.
- Grease inside of cast iron pan with butter.
- Transfer mixture from bowl to cast iron pan. Flatten mixure in order to disperse evenly in pan.
- Top mixture liberally with 1/4 cup of additional grated cheddar.
- Place pan in oven.
- Cook 20-30 minutes or until lightly golden brown and fork or toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
- Let cool and enjoy.
Fun fact: The seven points on the Statue of Liberty’s crown represent each of the seven continents and are each approximately 9 feet long. Virginia is the birthplace of 8 former Presidents, more than any other state in the country, while the Carolinas are the only place in the world where Venus Fly Traps are found natively.