mains, soups

JFK’s new england fish chowder.

May 29, 2015
summer in a little be-handled bowl.

summer in a little be-handled bowl.

For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with encyclopedias. What can I say? I love information. We had a set (a few sets, actually) when I was younger, and one of my favorite things to do (I’m showing my nerd here) was to think of something I wanted to know and head to those spectacularly weighty books to locate the answer to my question.

I still do that, only now, it’s via Google or Wikipedia. I ask questions of it in the way that a certain soon-to-be 5-year-old asks me things. What do birds eat besides worms? How much does Canada weigh? Why don’t I see wooly bear caterpillars and fireflies as much as I used to? Things like that: the internet has answers for everything. And I’m on a never-ending quest to know everything.

The other day, I realized it was almost John F. Kennedy’s birthday; today, May 29th. So I googled, naturally. Who celebrates his birthday? The JFK presidential library, but do any states celebrate him? Missouri doesn’t (although we do seem to have holidays devoted to Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, the latter of which is a Missouri native), no surprise there, but how about Massachusetts? Great big nope, people: not even a state holiday devoted to JFK. I got momentarily angry reading their state holidays list, as it included “Patriots Day” and I thought “WOW; that’s pretty insulting to celebrate a dang football team and NOT one of the best presidents EVER,” but as it turns out, Patriots’ Day is actually held to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. Thanks again, Wikipedia; you saved Massachusetts a nasty letter addressing the commonwealth’s questionable priorities.

So I thought I’d celebrate it: Thankfully I have this cookbook in my possession; pick it up if you ever see it hanging out in a thrift store, as I did.

A Treasury of White House Cooking. TRULY.

Published in 1972 (my edition), it’s a detailed account of what presidents and first ladies liked to eat – from Washington to Nixon – including tons of recipes based on particular preferences. Sometimes the book pits similar recipes against each other, like Coolidge’s Corn Muffins versus JFK’s hot cheese corn bread versus Lucy Hayes’ corn bread, and so on; such drama! It gives you a little insider information you wouldn’t normally read about, like how Mamie Eisenhower was borderline obsessed with serving a pineapple-mint-gelatin concoction called “Mamie’s Frosted Mint Delight” at every opportunity, or why Winston Churchill was afraid to drink water, opting mostly for Scotch and soda, or sometimes brandy (he had traveled to India as a child and was afraid to drink water; that fear carried into adulthood. How convenient, Winston.) Additionally, there are tons of menus from formal dinners and luncheons to wander through. Ever wonder what President Nixon served to at the Informal Lunch to Honor Nicolae Ceausescu, President the Council of State of the Republic of Romania, and Mrs. Ceausescu? I know the answer to that, and it’s in this book.

Needless to say, it’s an addictive read, with fascinating recipes along the way. There’s a chapter in it on the Kennedy family which notes that although JFK loved very New England-ish, simple fare, Jackie preferred French. Although Jackie seemed to win out at dinner parties and events, John’s tastes prevailed during family dinners. I imagine any Kennedy knows what’s up in terms of classic northeastern food, and one of his favorites was fish chowder. I’m particularly fond of fish chowder, especially in the summer; something about that sea smell makes me happy, and let’s be honest, I spend mostly the entire summer pretending on some level that I’m in Nantucket. It’s true.

JFK's Favorite New England Fish Chowder.

To honor the great President John F. Kennedy, gone too soon, I offer up his favorite fish chowder, straight from the source. It’s everything a fish chowder should be: delicate fish that get all fragrant on you when simmering, cubed potatoes, a little onion and celery, some bacon fat, all of it. I’ve added one thing which I really think every fish chowder should have: a little snap of fresh sweet corn, which I can’t resist in summer. The smell of this simmering on your stove is phenomenal, and it’ll take you right to the beach, if only in your mind. And because JFK liked to keep it simple, it’s basically a one-pot situation: sure, you have to poach the fish in a separate thing, but that’s nothing: you can do the entire chowder in a deep 12-inch skillet.

Happy Birthday, JFK.

Adapted, ever so slightly, from A Treasury of White House Cooking by François Rysavy, as told to Frances Spats Leighton.

President Kennedy’s New England Fish Chowder

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1 lb sturdy white fish (I used cod, but you could use haddock or flounder also)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 strips thick-cut bacon, diced, plus more for garnish (1 strip per person is a nice amount to have on-hand)*
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup celery, small dice
  • 2 ears sweet yellow corn, kernels stripped from cobs, cobs discarded
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper, to taste

If you’re making extra bacon, don’t crisp it all at once; it’s going to make a lot more bacon fat than you need. Rather, crisp your garnish bacon beforehand and warm it to serve over the chowder. Also: if you don’t have a 12-inch deep skillet, throw the whole thing into a stock pot at the point where you add the liquids. 

In a large saucepan, simmer fish 12 to 15 minutes over medium-low heat until tender but cooked through. Drain; reserve broth.

Heat a deep 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add 2 strips bacon; cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving fat in the pan. Add onions to pan and cook on medium until golden brown and lightly caramelized around edges. Add potatoes, celery, and corn; stir together. Add fish, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and reserved broth (approximately 2 cups), adding more water as needed to cover ingredients (approximately 1 additional cup water, or fish stock, if you have it.) Bring to a light boil and reduce heat; simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Add milk and butter, stirring to incorporate. Increase heat and bring to a boil once again, then simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes. Season to taste and garnish with crisped bacon; serve immediately.

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18 Comments

  • Reply faygie May 29, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Love the new look! 🙂

    Is it weird that when you brought up Patriots Day, the first thing that came to my mind was the Boston marathon (because that’s the day it’s held on)? Football NEVER comes to my mind! 😉

    Just yesterday I was thinking that I hadn’t seen anything from you in a while, and… poof! Here you are!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 9:15 am

      Thank you! 🙂

      Of course you were right on with the Boston Marathon, b/c that’s way more accurate than my original thought…i had no idea until i read about it that it was held on that day.

      Poof! here i am! You know, this whole business of Feast has been a delightful adventure, but tough on a person prone to getting WAY off course when you shake up their routine. I always adapt, but finding my groove in which blog things can flow at the same time as ideas for the magazine can flow has definitely taken some work, especially this past year as Feast sends more and more things my way. It’s been such a great challenge, but definitely my blogging has been inconsistent; an unfortunate side effect, but one which has hopefully been corrected. It’s why i write to begin with, and my reason for even doing what I do, so it’s been difficult to be away from. Now that i’m getting the hang of it, I hope i can re-establish some regularity once again. I miss you guys! and that’s the hardest part, i think.

  • Reply John@Kitchen Riffs May 29, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    I’ve seen that book before! Don’t know whether it was in a used book store (likely) or whether I actually remember it from when it was first published (less likely although quite possible — it’d have been from a review of it, though). I do know I’ve never looked inside it. Sounds like there’s some fun stuff in it. And I love a good fish chowder!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

      Ha! I’ve seen in one other time in a store, and it’s a great read: if you happen across one, grab it, because it’s just such an interesting look into presidents and their wives, and their likes/dislikes, etc. Fascinating.

  • Reply Deb|EastofEdenCooking May 30, 2015 at 9:57 am

    I very much enjoyed this post Shannon! One of my favorite things to do is to search for old cookbooks at thrift stores. This is a great one to add to my list! We are in the midst of our summer weather, which means fog shrouded days with a sharp chill in the air. A warm and hearty soup would be much appreciated!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 9:09 am

      Deb, i’m happy to hear there’s several of us who really appreciate a good vintage find! They’re so much fun to look at: food was so different just a few decades ago, and even the way recipes were written back then is interesting to see. If you see this out during one of your thrift store excursions, grab it!

  • Reply movita beaucoup May 31, 2015 at 4:47 am

    1. That chowdah looks amazing.
    2. So does your blog.

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 9:08 am

      1 + 2 = thank you so very much, Miss Movita. I miss you.

  • Reply Brianne May 31, 2015 at 6:23 am

    That is an excellent recipe and recipe source, my friend. I love the redesign! Also: no one wants to celebrate a dirty, rotten, cheating football team. I have to keep my Patriots hate on the DL since I live in New England, but lately it’s been real hard to suppress. It’s their summers and recipes like this that make me forgive this lovely part of the country, though 😛 Hope you are doing well!!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 9:08 am

      Thank you! I’ve said this on a few comments that i’m doing here this morning (you’d think i would be more organized than this, at some point) that i like it too, although i still have to get used to it and also make it do what i know it CAN do with organization and things like that. I love the WAY this theme works, and even though you guys can’t totally see what it can do, i’m working on it. I’m frankly just happy you all like it. 🙂

      Patriots hate is a thing! You hear about it even in the midwest, although i suspect it’s stronger in other parts of the country than it is here. I also suspect there’s a lot of undercover hate which happens in New England. 😉 Hope you’re doing well too! It’s like i got on this mini-roll of posting and then poof: had some actual work things happen, but hopefully i’m back at it for real this time.

  • Reply mellissa @ ibreatheimhungry May 31, 2015 at 6:57 am

    I’m a fan of chowder all year long, and it’s the only acceptable hot soup to eat in the Summertime as far as I’m concerned. I would eat the heck out of this chowdah!

    Loving the new look – very snazzy and modern!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Year-round chowdah forevah! I agree. and thank you for saying you like the new design! I was a little freaked out at first because you just never know how things will be received, but i spent SO MUCH TIME picking it out and just hoped everyone would dig it. thank you!

  • Reply J. Doe May 31, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    Oh, this is fun. I’ve seen this recipe before but not the book – what a wonderful cookbook find. I’ve been spending time with vintage recipes lately and may well give this a try. It looks lovely and satisfying.

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Thank you! Truly it’s one of my absolute favorite vintage cookbooks of all time: as interesting to read as it is to make recipes from. It’s fun to spend time with vintage recipes, i think: a great way to transport yourself back in time in a tangible way.

  • Reply Ashley June 2, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Beautiful new look, lady! And I love your writing, as always. I could listen to you tell any story for days.

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 8:26 am

      Thank you, Ashley! you know, my singsongy way of storytelling is something some of you really appreciate, and i couldn’t be more grateful for that. I should be more proud of that (i tend to doubt my writing skills during weaker moments), but you all are so supportive and you make me feel good. so thank you very much for ALWAYS being that supportive. It means a lot.

  • Reply Jennie @onesweetmess June 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    I adore old books, especially old cookbooks. I bet it even smells old. I used to love going to my university’s library just to inhale the smell of old books. Fish chowder has been on my list of recipes to make for what seems like an eternity (the list keeps growing, yet time remains the same). I puffy heart this recipe. I’m loving the new header; it’s snazzy!

    • Reply shannon June 17, 2015 at 8:07 am

      Jennie it TOTALLY SMELLS OLD! like that old library printed-pages type of situation that always makes me feel really happy…i know you know that feeling. And i’m SO THRILLED that you ended up making this for your family! When i saw you tweet that i got a little teary, not gonna lie, because i love it when you guys make my stuff.

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