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Like most American families, the whole range of sea food dishes known as "chowder" have a foreign ancestry. The name itself is a corruption of chaudière, the French word for caldron, and the food it describes traveled to America for the most part in the galleys of ships bound from Brittany to Newfoundland. Today, however, fish chowder is a thoroughly American dish—a delicacy as adaptable to a campsite in the Pacific Northwest as to a kitchenette apartment on New York's East Side.
A chef who considers himself equally at home either place is Wallace Kirkland, the former LIFE photographer, who took the picture at the left. Kirkland, who retired from active journalism in 1956, has spent much of his life camping out in the Northwest, the Hudson Bay country and the Florida Keys. For 15 years he shepherded groups of teen-age boys on canoe trips through the Canadian wilderness. "Fish," he remembers, "was of necessity a large part of our diet, and we needed a better way to cook it than just frying. Fish chowder was the answer. It is a perfect one-pot meal which I often have as a backyard dish in the city as well."
Kirkland makes, or as he puts it, "builds" his chowders with successive layers of potatoes and onions, fish cut in chunks and diced salt pork, all heated over a low fire. But there are almost as many ways to build a chowder as there are pots to put it in. Although most New Englanders claim their chowder as the definitive type, some frown on the addition of such ingredients as tomatoes while others insist upon them, and add cloves, lemon and red wine as well. In California a favorite chowder is made with abalones. A Key West recipe uses grouper and adds green peppers, garlic and white wine. There is even a chowder made of shrimps, oysters and squash.
Virtually any fresh fish can be turned into chowder, but according to Kirkland the best of them (listed in the order of his preference) are walleyed pike (as in the picture), bass, trout (big ones), red snapper and cod. A classic New England recipe adaptable to all of them follows.
NEW ENGLAND FISH CHOWDER
¼ pound salt pork, cut in very small dice
Fry pork dice in iron Dutch oven or other heavy pan till lightly browned. Remove dice; reserve. Throw onions in the melted fat left in the pan; cook slowly until tender, stirring often. Add potatoes, salt and pepper; stir; add water. Finally add fish chunks. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (10 to 15 minutes). Add milk, cream, butter and reserved pork dice, adjusting seasoning to taste. Serve at once.