Here on the Outer Banks we make a unique version of clam chowder. Hatteras Chowder is a simple broth based chowder that is perfect for a cold winter evening when coastal winds are whipping past our windows and the ocean pounds our shoreline.
Its origins are lost in the sands of time, but it has been a part of the Outer Banks diet for over 200 years. There are tales of family recipes being handed down from generation to generation dating back to the early 19th century.
The basic ingredients for this recipe consist of clams, bacon, onion and potatoes. The reason is simple. Everyone had onions and potatoes in dry storage and most had pork salt meat available. And, given our location, anybody could get out and get the clams!
With time, a few additional ingredients have been added. But for anyone planning on making Hatteras Chowder, the general rule of thumb is to keep it simple; this was a dish that was meant to be hearty, nutritious and filling. It was never meant to be haute cuisine.
To understand why this is a broth-based chowder, instead of the milk based New England style or the tomato based Manhattan clam chowder, we have to travel back in time. Until modern tourism came to the Outer Banks in the second half of the 20th century, this was the poorest region of North Carolina. It wasn’t just that people were poor-the soils here were also not very fertile. With fertilizer (probably from chickens) and the right seeds, some crops could be grown, but it was limited. With the energy and efforts that went into growing crops, there was not much left for dairy cattle.
Orville Wright describes domesticated animals in a letter to his sister during the brothers’ stay in Kitty Hawk, “You never saw such poor pitiful-looking creatures as the horses, hogs and cows down here.” For those fortunate to own cattle, they were not for producing milk. Roanoke Island had a small dairy farm, but with no refrigeration and transportation consisting of skiffs navigating the sound by sail, milk was not a part of every day diet.
Without a way to preserve and store tomatoes, they also would not have been part of the regular diet.
What they did have were onions and potatoes. Both crops could probably be grown in the local soil or easily brought in from Currituck County farmland, where commercial quantities were (and still are) grown.
The other ingredient that most everyone had in their larder was salted meat, especially pork. With onions, potatoes and salt pork, which we now call bacon, on hand the only missing ingredient was clams, and harvesting them was as simple as going to the beach at low tide and looking for their breathing holes.
Over the years, celery and carrots have been added to the pot, but again the best Hatteras Chowder seems to be the simplest. It’s doubtful if Outer Banks residents would have grown celery but carrots would do well in local soils. Here’s the most basic recipe:
Hatteras Island-Style Clam Chowder
Little neck clams are considered the best. They’re the smallest and are thought to be the most tender. Whether it’s a little neck, cherrystone, top neck or quahog, they’re all the quahog species of clam. It’s just a question of size.
If going for fresh, about 100 little neck will be needed. Chowder clams (top neck) are larger.
4 cup(s) shucked clams and juice (about 24 chowder clams)
3 cup(s) diced potatoes
2 cup(s) diced onions
1 cup(s) water
6 piece(s) bacon, fried and grease rendered
Chop clams, drain juice and save it. In a large pot, add water, clam juice, potatoes, onions and grease. Bring to a boil until potatoes are tender crisp. Add chopped clams and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Many recipes call for sautéing the onion in the bacon grease first. Classically only salt and pepper are used to season this.
For a little different flavor, fresh thyme adds a subtle herbaceous touch, and more bacon can also be added if preferred.