Clam Chowder

Clam chowder has been one of my favorite dishes ever since I was little. My dad, who is from Baltimore, Maryland, has the same love for this dish and even has what he calls his “Signature Fallon Clan Clam Chowder.” Usually when I go to visit my dad it’s during the holidays and more often than not it’s freezing cold outside. The crisp, cold air always makes it the perfect weather for some home-made clam chowder. And what’s a better dish on a cold, winter day than something thick, warm, and loaded with more calories than is suggested for your daily intake? Although we all know that this chowder stuffed with potatoes, cream, and calories is probably bad for our health, what many of us don’t know is how bad what we are eating can be for the environment. Seeing how big of an impact that a simple dish can have is definitely an eye opener. Once this impact is realized it’s easier to begin thinking about how we can change these recipes to be more sustainable and maybe even better for ourselves. This one small step can be a huge factor in taking care of our planet which is incredibly important, because how am I supposed to enjoy a nice bowl of clam chowder without any cold winter days?

Although many of us want to simply call out for change, for our cities to implement more sustainable ways of living, and for the government to restrict items that hurt the environment, there is something we often overlook: what we’re doing in our own homes. We must take a look into the routines we do every day and wonder if they are the best ways to live for our plant. As Wendell Berry states, “there is no public crisis that is not also private”(Berry 73). The problem of sustainability is not just a problem for the public, but a problem for us as individuals and the decisions that we make on a daily basis are a part of this. We must take this problem into our own hands and, put simply, practice what we preach; we need to make “fundamental changes in the way we are living”(Berry 76). One of the routines that we can improve could be cooking or, more accurately put, shopping. Simply informing ourselves of what we eat and how we make it can have a lot bigger of an impact on the environment than one would first assume.

Finding out how sustainable what you’re eating is involves a long, complicated scavenger hunt. This hunt involves some tedious steps, such as tracing back where it came from, the resources that went into making it, how it was processed, where it was processed, how long it traveled to get to the store, and by what means it got there. Many people as they’re shopping don’t take the time to think of these steps and just make decisions based on the labels in front of them. Labels like free range, sustainable food, whole grain, gluten free, GMO free, and many more muddle the search process. Sometimes, the true definitions for these labels are ambiguous or just unknown and so people choose what sounds the best, even if the process it went through was far less sustainable than the other options. One of the easiest ways to avoid this sea of labels and to make sure something is more sustainable is to simply shop locally. Shopping at local farmer markets cuts out almost all of the processing that foods at the store go through and much of the carbon emissions created from produce having to be shipped from far away. In order to practice what I preach, to fully understand how big of an impact food can have on the environment, and how hard fixing this can be, I decided to put this idea into practice and make my dad’s famous clam chowder more sustainable.

The recipe for clam chowder seems like it would have a relatively low impact at first. It consists of mostly vegetables and herbs such as potatoes, onions, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley. There are also some more worrisome ingredients too, however, such as milk, half and half, butter, flower, and vegetable stock, and for fun bacon, all of which are known to be heavily processed. Also, there was the ingredient I knew would be the hardest to find a sustainable option for: canned clams. Clams are definitely not something found around Atlanta, Georgia and aren’t often found anywhere relatively inland unless they were caught on the coast, canned, and shipped in or farmed, but still canned and shipped inland. When I went into the local Publix, I didn’t think my recipe would be that hard to shop for sustainably, but I quickly realized I was wrong. It turned out that almost all of the fresh produce was shipped from Mexico. This included the potatoes, onions, and parsley. The herbs were all in containers and even the ones labeled “organic” and “non-GMO,” which sounded like it would be good for the environment, were shipped all the way from Maryland which puts a lot more carbon emissions into the environment. In order to make my recipe more sustainable, I decided to source as much of the vegetables that I could from local farmers markets and my own garden at home, if possible. The less transportation that a product goes through the better, because less distance means less carbon emissions. I also decided to remove the bacon which reduces waste and pollution caused by raising pigs, slaughtering them, packaging them in plastic, and then shipping them from New Jersey. The canned clams, which I had the least amount of options to fix, ended up remaining in the dish, but I chose a brand that specifically works towards being more environmentally friendly via sustainable fishing and minimal processing instead of brands from as far as California that gave no such promises. For the milk, I chose to use almond milk instead. I chose almond milk because it requires less water to produce without the waste and air pollution caused by dairy cows. The butter I decided to replace with a local organic olive oil. Although butter and olive oil both go through a lot of processing, an organic and local option such as Georgia Olive Farms’ olive oil will create a much smaller impact because it doesn’t have to be shipped as far and, like with the milk, using a plant based product removes the waste created from raising cows. Even though I was able to replace most of the items, some I had to keep the same because I felt that the dish should still taste like what I’m trying to make in the end. While researching, I found some complex ideas to substitute half-and-half with tofu and soy bean oil or coconut milk, but these more sustainable options would change the flavor too much so I had to pass. I also kept regular vegetable stock and, like with the olive oil, just made sure to choose an organic, local option.

In the end, I think when shopping in order to create a sustainable recipe it’s important to avoid processing and distance. The local foods with minimal processing are far more likely to have a smaller impact on the environment from creating less carbon emissions to reducing overall waste. The only problem would be that shopping local doesn’t always guarantee that what you want will be available. The vegetable may not be in season at the time where you live or it may just not be farmed there, like with Atlanta and clams. My recipe specifically would be a lot easier to make in New England where it originated or Baltimore where my dad grew up. This is because a lot of the ingredients required are easily available locally in the northeast, but not often here in the heart of the south. Simply learning about where the things you buy come from and how they are made is a huge first step towards integrating sustainability into your home and I think it’s something that more of us should be trying to do.

Original Recipe

  • 4 slices bacon, diced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 2 (6.5-ounce) cans chopped clams, juices reserved
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup half and half*
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Original Recipe Directions

  1. Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add bacon and cook until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate, reserving 1 tablespoon excess fat; set aside.
  2. Melt butter in the stockpot. Add garlic and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions have become translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in thyme until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  3. Whisk in flour until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk, vegetable stock, clam juice and bay leaf, and cook, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in potatoes.
  4. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 12-15 minutes.*
  5. Stir in half and half and clams until heated through, about 1-2 minutes; season with salt and pepper, to taste. If the soup is too thick, add more half and half as needed until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Serve immediately, topped with bacon and parsley, if desired.

Sustainable Recipe

  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (farmers market)
  • 1 onion, diced (farmers market)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (grown or farmers market)
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 1 cup organic vegetable stock
  • 2 (6.5-ounce) cans chopped clams (Bumble Bee brand), juices reserved
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced (farmers market)
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves (grown or farmers market), optional

Sustainable Directions

  1. Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high heat
  2. Pour olive oil into the stockpot. Add garlic and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions have become translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in thyme until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  3. Whisk in flour until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in almond milk, vegetable stock, clam juice and bay leaf, and cook, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in potatoes.
  4. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 12-15 minutes.*
  5. Stir in half and half and clams until heated through, about 1-2 minutes; season with salt and pepper, to taste. If the soup is too thick, add more half and half as needed until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Serve immediately, topped with parsley, if desired.

Works Cited

Barry, Wendell. “Think Little.” A Continuous Harmony, pp. 71–85.

Leave a Reply