This was actually published in a sailing magazine a bit ago, but it is raining and chilly right now in San Francisco and the weather made me think of chowder. Which I will go in search of soon. So, here is the post, "A Supper To Sail On."
The Rolex St. Francis Big Boat Series is over. We’ve pulled out the stems of our chronometers, completing a “fall back” to begin daylight savings time. Summer yacht racing has been holly stoned, hauled out, and put on the hard until next year. It’s now fall on San Francisco Bay - with some of the year’s best sailing conditions.
Instead of spring and summer’s tumultuous williwaws, Northern California’s fourth season typically brings moderate temperatures, light and frustratingly variable winds, clear, cloudless skies and a Prussian-blue playground empty of boats.
I have spent most of my sailing life in East Coast waters - Newport, Long Island Sound, Annapolis, Charleston, Fort Lauderdale, Key Largo, Key West. And as a sailor, I was always excited about the arrival of fall. The crisp, chilly mornings with a giant cup ‘o Joe to warm the hands, and a tired old fisherman’s sweater layered on top of the faded denim shirt to cut through the breeze. Tacking through frothy seas, with the trees on shore modeling their fall wardrobes of bright reds, burnt oranges, and blistering yellows.
Returning back to the yacht harbor after a vibrant East Coast fall sail with lips chapped and a sun-soaked, salt-stained face, I would lapse into a brown study and quietly dream of a steaming bowl of chowder as the boat was put away. New England-style clam chowder - gentle wisps of white vapor twisting upward toward Polaris from the thick-lipped and slightly chipped metal mug, which had been overfilled by an overzealous chef.
The chowder was always served with crisp oyster crackers. A cup or a large bowl of the creamy nectar, eaten with a sandwich or two of toasted cheese, makes the venerable supper - or maybe a lunch - to sail on - to sleep on, after a sortie of strenuous sailing.
For centuries, sailors have subsided on stout, hearty fare. Soups, stews, bisques, and chowders were popular as they were quite easy to prepare by the ship’s cook after receiving his stores from the “Jack Adams.” This type of sustenance could be consumed while standing watch on deck or relaxing in the warm, weathered saloon of boiserie, filled with smells of pipes and cigars and whale-oil illumination.
The seafaring, popular novelist Patrick O’Brian described New England clam chowder as “a dish that is served in Heaven, every Friday.” And in “The Fortune of War” - his sixth book about the actions of his Napoleonic era heroes Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Steven Maturin - Captain Aubrey eats clam chowder “voraciously” when he is recovering in Boston after the battle between the warships Constitution and Java.
I have been sailing and supping on chowder since I was six. And like Jack Aubrey, I also consume it voraciously. Thousands of cups, mugs, and bowl have made me fastidious about my chowder, and I have a few favorites that border on absolute greatness: the Manhattan-style chowder (with fresh tomatoes) served at New York city’s fabled “21” restaurant, gourmet hard tack and a mug of New England-style chowder munched along Bannister’s Wharf at the Black Pearl in Newport, R.I., and the luscious, extravagant “Dairyless Three-Clam Chowder with Sweet Corn, Celery and Bacon” presented at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago.
This is my third year of fall sailing on the waters of San Francisco. Three fall seasons of eating what is deemed clam chowder by the area’s bars, restaurants, and fish shacks. And none of them has come close to the ones I had previously imbibed on the East Coast. I could not eat them voraciously, and a few weeks ago, I up and decided that I could not eat them at all.
These chowders were “modern” - very thick, very rich, very creamy - and clearly not the original fisherman’s dish, tasting strongly of the sea. Some even came served in big hollowed-out bowls of San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread. (Probably something for the Kentuckians to brag about to their friends when they returned to their landlocked, lonely homes in Lexington. “Why Martha honey, you just wouldn’t believe how they served that fish soup!”)
So I began an extensive search for “my” type of chowder, which recently ended in the middle of a tree-lined street at a 1,500-square-foot New England-style house in Larkspur, just north of my boat’s slip in Sausalito. After searching far and wide around the bay, I found an authentic chowder almost in my back yard at the Yankee Pier restaurant.
Founded by award-winning food impresario Bradley Ogden as a West Coast “clam shack,” the small restaurant is unpretentious, with bright, sunlit walls covered with seafaring pictures and artifacts. In addition to the main dining area across from the open and surgically clean kitchen, Yankee Pier also has two heated outdoor decks with rustic, weathered wooden picnic tables. And simmering on the stovetop stands a stockpot bubbling with 10 gallons of perfect chowder nectar, slowly stirred by Yankee Pier’s chef Chris Turke - who polished his chops at the Aqua restaurants in both San Francisco and Las Vegas.
“I guess you could call me just a seafood chef,” he says with a big grin.
I met with Bradley Ogden and Chris Turke at the Yankee Pier on a recent October morning to watch as they prepared the day’s portion of what Bradley calls the “comfort chowder I warmly remember as a child.”
Although he has been cooking in Northern California for over a decade, Ogden is originally from Michigan, where he was brought up with family fish boils, clam bakes, chowder and fried fritters. And the midwestern upbringing shows in his calm, friendly demeanor.
After sharing mugs of very strong, very good coffee, Bradley left me in the capable hands of Turke as he returned to The Lark Creek Inn - his farm-fresh American restaurant, which is located down the street from Yankee Pier.
In the proper mis en place tradition, Turke had all of his ingredients for the chowder prepped and placed in containers on the large chopping block across from his stovetops. He first placed the diced Hobb’s slab bacon into a stockpot, which was hot over high heat.
“We feel strongly about using the best seasonal ingredients that are available,” he said. “And we have done a lot of experimentation and tasting to get the best results.”
After sautéing the bacon until it was crisp, he drained it, set it aside, then began sweating chopped celery, onions, and herbs in the render from the pork. When the veggies were tender and translucent, he added a little flour and turned off the heat.
“It’s pretty important to do that,” he continued, “or you run the risk of scorching the flour and ruining the roux.”
After the consistency “looked right,” Turke fired up the flame, adding Clover Vitamin D Milk and Clover Half and Half, then the clam juice.
“One of the tricks ... the key, actually ... in making this is to use very cold clam juice,” Turke informed me.
Plopping in a cheese-cloth sachet of bay leaves and thyme, Turke then loaded in several pounds of Captain Hank’s clams along with diced red potatoes, which had been separately blanched.
“We will bring this almost to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer. In about an hour, it’s ready to go.”
Having an hour or so to kill, I went over to Brian Telford’s Pipe and Cigar shop in Mill Valley. Lounging comfortably in one of his oversize, brown distressed-leather Macanudo club chairs, I enjoyed a Davidoff Ambassadrice cigar to whet my appetite, while contemplating the events of the morning and scribbling the beginnings of this column.
Returning to Yankee Pier a little before noon, I chose a table on the sun-infused rear deck. A few minutes later, jovial Jack Rubyn, dressed in a bright Hawaiian shirt, sauntered into the crowded restaurant and joined me at the picnic table set with Yankee Pier’s signature yellow and blue crockery.
As the chairman of Marin’s International Wine and Food Society, Rubyn has eaten a ton of meals - good and bad, domestic and foreign. So I had invited him to lunch to get an opinion on “my” chowder.
We decided on doing a full “Clam Lunch” - cold cherrystones on the half shell, splashed on a platter of shaved ice, a Yankee Pier signature mug of clam chowder, and a big plate of fried Ipswich clams, which Ogden and Turke fly in from Long Island Sound.
While eating the second course of the rather large lunch voraciously, Turke came over to the table.
“What do you think?”
“Unbelievable,” commented Rubyn between spoonfuls, “unreal.”
“Glad you like it. And remember, we also do takeout on this, in pints and quarts or whatever you need. To sail on.”
“Oh, great... terrific!” I said, thinking that I would now never again have to endure the punishment of vapid, limpid “chowder.” I could now experience the perfection of proper chowder - either on the boat, at home, or in the clean and well-lighted environs of Yankee Pier.
In 1941, the writer M. F. K. Fisher published a small monograph titled “Consider the Oyster.” And while I do enjoy eating a few dozen of the steely tasting, briny mollusks, I think that Fisher got it a little wrong.
I know that San Francisco Bay’s yachtsmen and women will be happy and lively if we put the oyster aside and consider the clam. The icy cold, freshly shucked clam - the chowder clam. The jet-lagged, lightly fried Ipswich clam. And any and every clam served any and every way. As long as it is perfect. As at Yankee Pier.