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Sichuan Shrimp Chowder

This is my entry for The Spice is Right VIII: Frankenstein’s Monster, where we are creating culinary mash-ups using spices from one cuisine in recipes or with techniques from another. Here, I have used Sichuan peppercorns to add a tingle to a bowl of classically American shrimp chowder.

The deadline to post your entries is this Wednesday, November 15th, so please be sure to notify me by email of your posts before midnight on the 15th!

When I was a kid, my Dad was a sailor. (And a lawyer, but never mind that for now.) We would sail around Long Island for a few weeks every summer, just me and my parents and my brother, Josh. (All this ended before my other brother, Jordan, was even born.)

My brother and father and I investigated the clam chowder carefully at every port. New England clam chowder (the white kind) was my job, and Josh was in charge of Manhattan clam chowder (the red kind). Dad, of course, collected his Daddy Tax and tasted from both of our bowls.

We still try to get to the Montauk Clam Chowder Festival when we can, though I missed it this year. Jordan tells me there was a great pumpkin chowder there this year, which I must try to recreate eventually. Point being, chowder is in my blood. And I’m not the only one.

According to Jasper White in his brilliant tome, 50 Chowders, the first written reference to North American chowder was in 1732, when Benjamin Lynde wrote in his diary that he had “dined on a fine chowdered cod.”

Chowder apparently grew from a way of preparing whatever fish you had on hand and making it easier to bear a diet of hardtack into the range of hearty maritime stews my brother and I grew up on and the ones we still enjoy today.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in 1964 that a person sitting down to eat fish chowder in New England should anticipate that there may be a few fish bones in the chowder and should take care to be wary of them, and dismissed a suit brought by a plaintiff who had choked on a fish bone in her chowder. Priscilla D. Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Inc., 347 Mass. 421, 198 N.E.2d 309 (1964).

The Court was very concerned with the “gustatory adventure” of sitting down to a bowl of chowder, and went to great length to ensure that chowder would not be adulturated on account of plaintiffs who don’t bother to check for bones before swallowing.

The Court went into such extraordinary depth concerning the history and importance of chowder in New England that I cannot resist the urge to reproduce the entire decision here.

Even if you are not delighted by the law as I am, try reading this judicial decision as the humorous food writing that it is.

Priscilla D. Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Inc., 347 Mass. 421, 198 N.E.2d 309 (1964).
JUDGES: Wilkins, C.J., Spalding, Whittemore, Cutter, & Reardon, JJ.

This is a case which by its nature evokes earnest study not only of the law but also of the culinary traditions of the Commonwealth which bear so heavily upon its outcome. It is an action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by reason of a breach of implied warranty of food served by the defendant in its restaurant. An auditor, whose findings of fact were not to be final, found for the plaintiff. On a retrial in the Superior Court before a judge and jury, in which the plaintiff testified, the jury returned a verdict for her. The defendant is here on exceptions to the refusal of the judge (1) to strike certain portions of the auditor’s report, (2) to direct a verdict for the defendant, and (3) to allow the defendant’s motion for the entry of a verdict in its favor under leave reserved.

The jury could have found the following facts: On Saturday, April 25, 1959, about 1 p.m., the plaintiff, accompanied by her sister and her aunt, entered the Blue Ship Tea Room operated by the defendant. The group was seated at a table and supplied with menus.

This restaurant, which the plaintiff characterized as “quaint,” was located in Boston “on the third floor of an old building on T Wharf which overlooks the ocean.”

The plaintiff, who had been born and brought up in New England (a fact of some consequence), ordered clam chowder and crabmeat salad. Within a few minutes she received tidings to the effect that “there was no more clam chowder,” whereupon she ordered a cup of fish chowder. Presently, there was set before her “a small bowl of fish chowder.” She had previously enjoyed a breakfast about 9 a.m. which had given her no difficulty. “The fish chowder contained haddock, potatoes, milk, water and seasoning. The chowder was milky in color and not clear. The haddock and potatoes were in chunks” (also a fact of consequence). “She agitated it a little with the spoon and observed that it was a fairly full bowl . . . . It was hot when she got it, but she did not tip it with her spoon because it was hot . . . but stirred it in an up and under motion. She denied that she did this because she was looking for something, but it was rather because she wanted an even distribution of fish and potatoes.” “She started to eat it, alternating between the chowder and crackers which were on the table with . . . [some] rolls. She ate about 3 or 4 spoonfuls then stopped. She looked at the spoonfuls as she was eating. She saw equal parts of liquid, potato and fish as she spooned it into her mouth. She did not see anything unusual about it. After 3 or 4 spoonfuls she was aware that something had lodged in her throat because she couldn’t swallow and couldn’t clear her throat by gulping and she could feel it.” This misadventure led to two esophagoscopies at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the second of which, on April 27, 1959, a fish bone was found and removed. The sequence of events produced injury to the plaintiff which was not insubstantial.

We must decide whether a fish bone lurking in a fish chowder, about the ingredients of which there is no other complaint, constitutes a breach of implied warranty under applicable provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, n1 the annotations to which are not helpful on this point. As the judge put it in his charge, “Was the fish chowder fit to be eaten and wholesome? . . . [N]obody is claiming that the fish itself wasn’t wholesome. . . . But the bone of contention here — I don’t mean that for a pun — but was this fish bone a foreign substance that made the fish chowder unwholesome or not fit to be eaten?”

n1 “(1) Unless excluded or modified by section 2-316, a warranty that the goods shall be merchantable is implied in a contract for their sale if the seller is a merchant with respect to goods of that kind. Under this section the serving for value of food or drink to be consumed either on the premises or elsewhere is a sale. (2) Goods to be merchantable must at least be such as . . . (c) are fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used . . . .” G. L. c. 106, § 2-314.

“. . . (3) (b) [W]hen the buyer before entering into the contract has examined the goods or the sample or model as fully as he desired or has refused to examine the goods there is no implied warranty with regard to defects which an examination ought in the circumstances to have revealed to him . . . .” G. L. c. 106, § 2-316 .

The plaintiff has vigorously reminded us of the high standards imposed by this court where the sale of food is involved (see Flynn v. First Natl. Stores Inc. 296 Mass. 521, 523) and has made reference to cases involving stones in beans ( Friend v. Childs Dining Hall Co. 231 Mass. 65), trichinae in pork ( Holt v. Mann, 294 Mass. 21, 22), and to certain other cases, here and elsewhere, serving to bolster her contention of breach of warranty.

The defendant asserts that here was a native New Englander eating fish chowder in a “quaint” Boston dining place where she had been before; that “[f]ish chowder, as it is served and enjoyed by New Englanders, is a hearty dish, originally designed to satisfy the appetites of our seamen and fishermen”; that “[t]his court knows well that we are not talking of some insipid broth as is customarily served to convalescents.” We are asked to rule in such fashion that no chef is forced “to reduce the pieces of fish in the chowder to miniscule size in an effort to ascertain if they contained any pieces of bone.” “In so ruling,” we are told (in the defendant’s brief), “the court will not only uphold its reputation for legal knowledge and acumen, but will, as loyal sons of Massachusetts, save our world-renowned fish chowder from degenerating into an insipid broth containing the mere essence of its former stature as a culinary masterpiece.” Notwithstanding these passionate entreaties we are bound to examine with detachment the nature of fish chowder and what might happen to it under varying interpretations of the Uniform Commercial Code.

Chowder is an ancient dish preexisting even “the appetites of our seamen and fishermen.” It was perhaps the common ancestor of the “more refined cream soups, purees, and bisques.” Berolzheimer, The American Woman’s Cook Book (Publisher’s Guild Inc., New York, 1941) p. 176. The word “chowder” comes from the French “chaudiere,” meaning a “cauldron” or “pot.” “In the fishing villages of Brittany . . . ‘faire la chaudiere’ means to supply a cauldron in which is cooked a mess of fish and biscuit with some savoury condiments, a hodgepodge contributed by the fishermen themselves, each of whom in return receives his share of the prepared dish. The Breton fishermen probably carried the custom to Newfoundland, long famous for its chowder, whence it has spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.” A New English Dictionary (MacMillan and Co., 1893) p. 386. Our literature over the years abounds in references not only to the delights of chowder but also to its manufacture. A namesake of the plaintiff, Daniel Webster, had a recipe for fish chowder which has survived into a number of modern cookbooks n2 and in which the removal of fish bones is not mentioned at all. One old time recipe recited in the New English Dictionary study defines chowder as “A dish made of fresh fish (esp. cod) or clams, stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit. ‘Cider and champagne are sometimes added.’” Hawthorne, in The House of the Seven Gables (Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1957) p. 8, speaks of “[a] codfish of sixty pounds, caught in the bay, [which] had been dissolved into the rich liquid of a chowder.” A chowder variant, cod “Muddle,” was made in Plymouth in the 1890s by taking “a three or four pound codfish, head added. Season with salt and pepper and boil in just enough water to keep from burning. When cooked, add milk and piece of butter.” n3 The recitation of these ancient formulae suffices to indicate that in the construction of chowders in these parts in other years, worries about fish bones played no role whatsoever. This broad outlook on chowders has persisted in more modern cookbooks. “The chowder of today is much the same as the old chowder . . . .” The American Woman’s Cook Book, supra, p. 176. The all embracing Fannie Farmer states in a portion of her recipe, fish chowder is made with a “fish skinned, but head and tail left on. Cut off head and tail and remove fish from backbone. Cut fish in 2-inch pieces and set aside. Put head, tail, and backbone broken in pieces, in stewpan; add 2 cups cold water and bring slowly to boiling point . . . .” The liquor thus produced from the bones is added to the balance of the chowder. Farmer, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (Little Brown Co., 1937) p. 166.

n2 “Take a cod of ten pounds, well cleaned, leaving on the skin. Cut into pieces one and a half pounds thick, preserving the head whole. Take one and a half pounds of clear, fat salt pork, cut in thin slices. Do the same with twelve potatoes. Take the largest pot you have. Try out the pork first, then take out the pieces of pork, leaving in the drippings. Add to that three parts of water, a layer of fish, so as to cover the bottom of the pot; next a layer of potatoes, then two tablespoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper, then the pork, another layer of fish, and the remainder of the potatoes. Fill the pot with water to cover the ingredients. Put over a good fire. Let the chowder boil twenty-five minutes. When this is done have a quart of boiling milk ready, and ten hard crackers split and dipped in cold water. Add milk and crackers. Let the whole boil five minutes. The chowder is then ready to be first-rate if you have followed the directions. An onion may be added if you like the flavor.” “This chowder,” he adds, “is suitable for a large fishing party.” Wolcott, The Yankee Cook Book (Coward-McCann, Inc., New York City, 1939) p. 9.

n3 Atwood, Receipts for Cooking Fish (Avery & Doten, Plymouth, 1896) p. 8.

Thus, we consider a dish which for many long years, if well made, has been made generally as outlined above. It is not too much to say that a person sitting down in New England to consume a good New England fish chowder embarks on a gustatory adventure which may entail the removal of some fish bones from his bowl as he proceeds. We are not inclined to tamper with age old recipes by any amendment reflecting the plaintiff’s view of the effect of the Uniform Commercial Code upon them. We are aware of the heavy body of case law involving foreign substances in food, but we sense a strong distinction between them and those relative to unwholesomeness of the food itself, e.g., tainted mackerel ( Smith v. Gerrish, 256 Mass. 183), and a fish bone in a fish chowder. Certain Massachusetts cooks might cavil at the ingredients contained in the chowder in this case in that it lacked the heartening lift of salt pork. In any event, we consider that the joys of life in New England include the ready availability of fresh fish chowder. We should be prepared to cope with the hazards of fish bones, the occasional presence of which in chowders is, it seems to us, to be anticipated, and which, in the light of a hallowed tradition, do not impair their fitness or merchantability. While we are buoyed up in this conclusion by Shapiro v. Hotel Statler Corp. 132 F. Supp. 891 (S. D. Cal.), in which the bone which afflicted the plaintiff appeared in “Hot Barquette of Seafood Mornay,” we know that the United States District Court of Southern California, situated as are we upon a coast, might be expected to share our views. We are most impressed, however, by Allen v. Grafton, 170 Ohio St. 249, where in Ohio, the Midwest, in a case where the plaintiff was injured by a piece of oyster shell in an order of friend oysters, Mr. Justice Taft (now Chief Justice) in a majority opinion held that “the possible presence of a piece of oyster shell in or attached to an oyster is so well known to anyone who eats oysters that we can say as a matter of law that one who eats oysters can reasonably anticipate and guard against eating such a piece of shell . . . .” (P. 259.)

Thus, while we sympathize with the plaintiff who has suffered a peculiarly New England injury, the order must be

Exceptions sustained. Judgment for the defendant.

Sichuan Shrimp Chowder
(Adapted from Jasper White’s recipe for fennel shrimp chowder)
1 1/2 lbs. white shrimp (21 to 25 count work nicely)
4 oz. bacon, cut into 1/3″ slices (or cubes, if you can get slab bacon)
1 tbsp olive oil
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, chopped or sliced (however you prefer, texture-wise)
2 1/2 C shrimp stock (recipe below)
1 C dry white wine
8 oz. Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into smallish hunks
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
10 oz. black beans
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp ground sage
1/4 – 1 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorns, depending on taste
Black pepper and salt to taste

If you are using dried beans, soak them overnight and cook them in salted water until they are soft, then weigh them. If you are using canned beans, just drain them before weighing.

Have your shrimp stock melted, warm, and at the ready.

Prep the shrimp by peeling and deveining them. Save the shells in the freezer for later use, or use them to make your shrimp stock now. Cut the shrimp into quarters of thirds to get smaller chunks.

Put the bacon pieces in your chowder pot and render them over medium-low heat, until they have released their liquid fat and begun to crisp. You want to keep the heat fairly low to keep from burning the fat.

Pour off all but 1 tbsp fat. (I keep my poured off bacon grease in a can in the freezer. It is really nice to have around.) Add 1 tbsp olive oil, then throw in the garlic and fry for about 30 seconds before adding in the onion as well. Fry the onions for about 10 minutes, until they are soft but not particularly browned.

Add the potatoes and stir until they are coated with the contents of the pot, then add the shrimp stock and wine.

Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are soft.

Puree all or some of the black beans (I prefer to puree only half of them, but Dave likes them all pureed) and add them in. Add in the tomato as well, and the spices. Simmer for another 5 minutes.

The amount of ground Sichuan peppercorn is up to you. 1/4 tsp will be fairly mild, adding just a barely noticable tingle to your lips as you eat. The more you add, the stronger that tingling becomes, until it gets to the point where it is fairly numbing. If you like, you can add the Sichuan peppercorns slowly at the end and taste as you go to be sure you have the level of tingling you desire.

Add the shrimp and cook for 1 minute. Then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow the shrimp to finish cooking in the remaining heat of the chowder for 10 minutes.

If you have the time, let the chowder cool to room temperature and then reheat it before eating, in order to give the flavors a chance to meld together more fully.

Simmer over medium heat for another 5 minutes or so.

Shrimp Stock
(Recipe from Emeril)
8 C uncooked shrimp shells (including heads if you can get them)
2 onions, peeled, halved, and sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 lemons, halved
8 bay leaves
1/2 C chopped fresh parsley, including stems, not packed
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp dried oregano
3/4 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp salt
4 quarts water, cold or at room temperature

Rinse the shrimp shells in cold water, then place in a pot with all the other ingredients. Bring quickly to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Raise the heat back up to medium and cook for another 30 minutes. Cool, strain, and freeze any excess for future use.

I like to save the shells in the freezer whenever I cook with shrimp, and whenever enough have accumulated, I make a batch of shrimp stock and freeze it in ice cube trays. This means that I have a convenient ziplock bag of frozen cubes of shrimp stock to use whenever I feel like making chowder.

Shrimp stock is very strong, so it should only be used in dishes where the shrimpiness is appropriate. It doesn’t make a good substitute for generic fish stock, generally.

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7 Responses to “Sichuan Shrimp Chowder”

  1. Yvo says:

    Mm, the chowder looks delish! I love NE clam chowder, coincidentally. And the decision that one must expect bones in one’s chowder is pretty funny.

  2. Tanna says:

    I love your picture of the chowder, it certainly invites my spoon!
    The brief is terrific – I love our law!

  3. Elise says:

    What a great post! I loved reading the legal brief, and how they (rightly) support the notion that one should expect an occasional fish bone in one’s fish chowder. Perfect. Thank you.

  4. [...] Soups and Stews Chicken and Rice, Curry Banana, Roots and Rhizomes Stew Crypto-Jewish Brazilian Yellow Stew Persian Pomegranate Soup (Ash-e Anar) Sichuan Shrimp Chowder [...]

  5. [...] As I’ve mentioned before, I love chowder. What you may not know is that I also love oysters. (In fact, I love all seafood, except perhaps jellyfish and sea cucumbers.) This leek and oyster chowder is scrumptious as only a simple dish can be. The broth is creamy and flavorful, and the oysters themselves are silky mouthfuls of the sea. [...]

  6. Astrid Dodds says:

    One year after this fish bone incident, I was a part-time waitress at the Blue Ship Tea Room. Thank goodness it didn’t happen on my watch. (And no one mentioned that this lawsuit was in the works!) My main challenge at work was to describe to new patrons what “Norwegian Whale Steak” tasted like. After sampling it, I latched onto “a cross between steak and liver.” It was hard work, but the venue was scenic and the owner played wonderful Chopin on the grand piano during the main lunch and dinner hours, pieces which, to this day, remind me of the Blue Ship Tea Room. I found this website only because I am trying to find photos of T Wharf or document the date it was torn down. (So far without success.) A great website. I am printing it out!

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