Smoky fish chowder, and cultural food taboos.
Adapted from: the classic New England version of the stew.
Generally iron-clad from a lifetime of spice consumption, my stomach still surprises me with occasional bouts of violent revolt. The reaction is instantaneous and debilitating, less to do with the quality of the food and more a reflection of my particular constitution. Four years ago, at a formal birthday dinner, a creamy lobster bisque appetizer rendered me incapable of sampling the rest of the meal. A couple of years after that, enjoying the fruits of my labour after a Provençal cooking class, it was the fennel and leek mussels with crème fraîche that sent a roller coaster through my gut. Then, this week: a milk-based fish chowder in the New England style, for which I’d made the fish stock and all. I spent the rest of the evening horizontal.
“But Tracy, you’re lactose intolerant,” Some of you might be thinking. I can reassure you that these are not the pains of my body’s bias against dairy, which I routinely suffer for charcuterie boards and gelato. This time I’d even prepared for it just in case, downing two extra-strength Lactaid pills before I served the chowder. Unfortunately, it’s much worse. Singular. Almost supernatural.
The seafood and cheese taboo
After the mussels incident, I’d begun to suspect that it was something in the combination of seafood and dairy. After the chowder, I decided to look into this theory. I’d heard that serving seafood with cheese is frowned upon in Italian cuisine, but never knew the details. Was it because of the stomach somersaults?
Short answer, no. While the taboo is widely documented, there’s no definitive answer as to why it exists. A few theories:
From Smithsonian Magazine, an argument for flavour:
One explanation may stem from gustatory common sense: seafood tends to have a more delicate constitution, and those subtle flavors can be drowned out by a heady, assertive cheese.
From food writer Naomi Tomky, an argument for locality:
The doctrine of separation comes from Italian cuisine: Not only do Italy’s cheese-making regions and its seafood regions tend to be different places, but both ingredients keep poorly. Prior to refrigerated transport, carrying your pesce from Puglia to Piedmont probably would have resulted in some pretty stinky swordfish.
From Times of India, an Ayurvedic lens:
Keeping the Ayurvedic philosophy in mind, this combination is incompatible because of the different diet styles as well as because they both have completely opposite effects on our body. Since milk has a cooling effect and fish has a heating effect, their combination creates an imbalance that can lead to chemical changes in the body.
And finally, a theory that goes back to the four humors of Hippocratic medicine:
“Cheese digests very slowly and would hamper the transformation of the fish, which very easily corrupts,” writes [food historian Ken] Albala in an email. “That is, it would go bad long before it could be fully broken down. And then that corrupt fish would be forced into the liver, be transformed into corrupt blood and ruin the entire digestive process.”
I’m not saying that I had corrupt blood after eating this chowder, but I’m also not not saying that.
Origins of chowder
Suffice to say, the Italians didn’t invent chowder.
The word appears to be derived from the French word chaudière (cauldron). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “chowder may have originated among Breton fishermen who brought the custom to Newfoundland, whence it spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.” These early settlers in turn likely learned to use fish and clams in their stews from the Indigenous tribes that inhabited these regions.
From Manhattan to Rhode Island, chowder (especially clam chowder) has spawned endless regional variations, documented by Eater in this round-up.
I improvised the stock a little bit based on the aromatics I had, but it’s very forgiving. As for the recipe, I used cod (perfectly flakey) and spicy smoked paprika (hence the colour discrepancy, but I liked the extra pronounced flavour), and white wine instead of vermouth.
Lest I slander this chowder: My partner enjoyed it in tandem, and suffered no ill side-effects. For what it’s worth!
Do you abide by any food rules? Tell me about them. The Atlantic has gathered a whole smorgasbord here.
Until next time,