Chapter 15: Chowder

My wife and I have an ongoing, and very nerdy, joke about a paper we would write were we undergraduates again, titled “The Redemptive Power of Stew: Traditional Food Ways in Popular Culture.” This paper would follow Luke Skywalker, for example, to the cold outer reaches of the Dagobah system, where Yoda discards Luke’s energy-bar-like rations and begins his physical and spiritual training with a warm bowl of stew-ish looking stuff. We would also certainly cover Aunt Beast’s role in A Wrinkle in Time, whose nurturing food cures Meg of paralysis by reminding Meg of her mother’s stew. Stew repeatedly surfaces in literature as the ideal of home, family, and tradition. As such, stew has an enormous power to heal.

Other than illuminating Ishmael as something of a saucy fellow, “Chowder” interests me as a fine example of the redemptive power of stew. Arriving in Nantucket late in the evening, Ishmael and Queequeq follow the directions of their New Bedford inn keeper, Peter Coffin, who had recommended his cousin’s inn during their stay in Nantucket. Upon seeing this inn, called the Try Pots, Ishmael breaks into a panic of omen, because the sign in front of the inn looks like a gallows. Indeed, Ishmael had encountered a good deal of death imagery already in the early stages of his journey — a Coffin for an innkeeper, and tombstones in the chapel — but nothing perhaps worthy of panic. Nevertheless, Ishmael enters the inn with a heavy heart, only to be comforted by . . . chowder (stew!). Two bowls of chowder make Ishmael forget all his worries. Even when the innkeeper’s wife explains the inn’s policy against harpoons in the bedrooms, instated because of a recent suicide after a failed voyage, Ishmael is not distracted from thinking about breakfast, and the warm chowder therein.

Chapter 15: Chowder

Hold, my friend, lest the chowder relent!
Call to the kitchen for another bowl of this remedy
For pessimism!

I saw the world with an ominous bent,
Until such time as my gullet could vent the sweet relief,
This precious steaming.

Arrived today with a curious sway —
Nantucket does boast of The Try-Pots, with it’s savory brine
Bubbling all the time.

But what sweet things at the gallows of hell,
To lift my soul from its habit of feeling all delight
With fearful leanings.

The sweetest clams you’ve ever tasted in your life,
Touched with salt-pork in a bubbly broth of paradise!

I count myself in a fortunate bed,
Touched in the stomach but not in the head, to pleasantly
Await the morrow.

The landlady asked what to put in my dish
To break my fast, with the heartiest wish to satisfy,
I’m doubly now enticed.

The sweetest clams you’ve ever tasted in your life,
Touched with salt-pork in a bubbly broth of paradise!

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 3, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 23, 2010

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