Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Another Regional Canadian Food: Donald Merriam's fish chowder and Solomon Gundy

In my last regional Canadian food post, I noted that my Maritime ex-pat friends missed all manner of seafood. This one is for them: my grandfather's chowder recipe, a classic fish-and-potato chowder that is easily adapted to whatever seafood you can get fresh or frozen locally. In my case, I'm using grocery-store seafood that has been flash-frozen while fresh, because I live on the Prairies. It's not possible here to ask your fishmonger how old their stock is, and have them look at their watch.

Port Greville harbour circa 1910, via Dan LeBlanc's flikr stream. That's my grandparents' home, where my Dad grew up, with the upstairs bedroom windows open in the lower right corner.
Workers at Wagstaff & Hatfield Shipbuilding, Port Greville, Nova Scotia, probably sometime in the 1960s. My grandfather Donald Merriam is the fellow third from right in the front row, squinting at the camera. The big red house on the hill at left was built by his father. Via Dan LeBlanc's flikr stream.
My father's dad was a sailor, from a long line of merchant seamen of Planter ancestry (the New Englanders who were shipped in to settle the land after the Acadians were deported). He sailed two- and three-masted schooners along the trade routes of the Atlantic before World War Two. He served in the engine room of motor gun boats after training as a motor mechanic during the war, then applied that skill to work in a shipyard on the Parrsboro shore of the Bay of Fundy. He had very impressive blackwork tattoos from his sailing days on his forearms, gone blue and a bit blurry with age; at least one was the anchor that he would have gotten after his first Transatlantic voyage on a schooner. At the tender age of four he made me solemnly promise to never get a tattoo, because he'd always regretted having them as an adult. I also remember him taking me out on the Bay in a dory to jig for flounder once when I was a kid - he never repeated the adventure, because apparently I couldn't sit still and he was terrified that I would fall in and drown.

My grandfather in his Canadian Navy dress uniform (I think) during World War 2. I believe this was taken in London when he and my grandmother got engaged or married - there is one of her to match.
Cream-soup chowders are a landlubber's luxury. This chowder was served aboard ship on cargo schooners, where fresh milk was not available, and even adding canned milk would have been unlikely and is optional (but my mom always did, so to me, it doesn't taste right without it). The fish used would have been cured with salt and smoke and packed for the voyage, or caught fresh.

For those of you who like to compare recipes before you make your own version, my grandfather's chowder recipe is similar to this milk-based recipe from Cubits, and Chef Michael Smith's version grates the potatoes and adds white wine.

Tonight's version, made with bacon, scallops, and halibut. It tastes almost like I remember.
I'm out of summer savoury so I substituted a bit of dill.
Donald St.Clair Merriam's fish chowder 
(as told to my mother shortly after she and my father got married)

bacon (or, originally, salt pork)
white fish, filleted: cod / haddock / halibut / flounder / sole
potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced (optional)
1 stalk celery, diced (optional)
spices: summer savoury, salt and pepper to taste
1 can evaporated milk (optional)

Cook bacon, chopped up. Sautee the chopped onions in the bacon fat with bacon. Add potatoes (and carrot and celery) to the soup pot and add water immediately to cover. Bring water to boil, then turn down to medium-low. Cook covered 10 minutes, then add fish. Cook covered until fish is cooked (10 minutes per inch of fish). Add 1 can evaporated milk and spices at end. Best served with tea biscuits or scones.

My modifications:
(1) I add scallops, too, because I love them. They get sauteed in the bacon grease until cooked, then reserved, and added back into the pot just before serving.
(2) Instead of leaving the bacon in the soup pot, I prefer to cook it until crisp, reserve it, then crumble it and some dulse over the bowl when serving.
(3) My mom prefers to leave the bacon out, and sautee the chopped onions in butter instead of bacon fat, which is likely how it would have been done when brined pork was used.
(4) Sometimes, like today, I don't peel my potatoes. I thought the red skins would look pretty.

Bonus recipe! This one is exactly as written in my paternal grandmother's handwriting. I haven't tried it, and my parents don't remember him making it, but when I was a teenager, Grampie had converted a small shed into a smokehouse, so he probably made it to use up his salt-cured smoked herring. It's served as an appetizer with crackers, sometimes with cheese and another pickle. My maternal grandmother's father also made Solomon Gundy - which is emphatically not said "Solomon GRundy" like in the nursery rhyme.

Don's Solomon Gundy (pickled herring)

Cut herring into bits.
Soak overnight if salt.
Next day mix equal amounts of vinegar & sugar, enough to cover fish, in saucepan.
Add small bag of pickling spice & boil. Let cool; pour over fish after packing in bottles with layer of fish, layer of onions.

If this recipe is unclear, try this version. The history of Solomon Gundy is discussed here. You might be more familiar with Solomon Gundy as the spicy fish paste from Jamaica - same stuff, but with no sugar and more heat in the spice mix, and pureed.

This post belatedly fulfills Challenge 10 (from March) of the Canadian Food Experience project (also on Facebook) proposed by my friend Valerie Lugonja, who is a board member of Slow Food Edmonton. The project began June 7th, 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us. 

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