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[caption id="attachment_169375" align="alignright" width="300"] Fred Miller is a lifelong resident of Hatteras Island. [/caption] A mesh bag of clams lands with a thud at the edge of the avocado green sink

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[caption id="attachment_169375" align="alignright" width="300"] Fred Miller is a lifelong resident of Hatteras Island. [/caption] A mesh bag of clams lands with a thud at the edge of the avocado green sink

Soup from the Sound

Fred Miller is a lifelong resident of Hatteras Island.  photograph by Baxter Miller

A mesh bag of clams lands with a thud at the edge of the avocado green sink inside Fred Miller’s family cottage, tucked in Buxton’s maritime forest. The palm-size shells clank against the enameled, cast-iron basin, and Miller, an 86-year-old descendant of Hatteras Lighthouse keepers and grandson of the famed U.S. Life-Saving Service hero Baxter Benjamin Miller, begins to reminisce.

“Growing up, my grandmother in Buxton always had a pot of Hatteras clam chowder on the stove,” he says. “It was never refrigerated. If you were hungry, you’d just warm it up — sometimes for breakfast, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner. I’ve eaten it for as long as I can remember.”

Hatteras clam chowder, a briny, broth-based soup, is simple in ingredients and preparation, but it has come to define a place and its people. Like many dishes that characterize rural regions, the chowder is the product of scarcity and resourcefulness.

First step: gathering the ingredients. photograph by Baxter Miller

“Clam chowder became a staple in the island diet because it is made with what people had available to them and only required a few ingredients,” explains Sharon Peele Kennedy, a Hatteras native and author of the recipe collection What’s for Supper? “It was also a dish that could be easily stretched if you were feeding a crowd.”

Miller recalls that clams were plentiful in Pamlico Sound and available year-round. “When I was a boy, there were so many clams, we didn’t even have to use a rake,” he says. “We’d go out there and get three or four dozen by just digging them up with our toes.”

He rinses off the shells and pulls out an old wood-handled clam knife whose blade is worn from decades of sharpening. He holds up his ideal clam. “You only want to use chowder clams, the ones that are three to four inches or bigger,” he says. Gripping the shell, he pries at the base of the clam until it gives way under pressure. He slides the blade with a quick scythe-like motion from one edge to the other, slipping the clam meat along with the juice into a milk-glass bowl. The discarded shells are set aside for the fig tree out back.

Hunched over the sink, he frees three dozen clams from their shells, one by one. It’s slow work, and, of course, there is no recipe. Like many islanders, Miller cooks according to memory. After frying down a few slabs of salt pork in a dinged metal stockpot, he removes the rendered meat and adds chopped onion, diced potatoes, roughly chopped clams, and their liquor. He works them over in the grease with a mustard-colored spoon, decorated with faded little flowers on the handle, then swings the stockpot into the sink and adds water from the faucet. He tosses in a heaping pinch of black pepper and adds about a tablespoon of cornmeal, leaving time and the dancing blue flame from the gas stove to do the rest.

The beauty of Hatteras clam chowder is in its simplicity. Though improvising home cooks and aspiring chefs have ushered in variations that include mirepoix bases and hard herb aromatics, authentic Hatteras clam chowder indisputably consists of just six ingredients: clams, onions, potatoes, salt pork, water, and black pepper. And like many dishes passed down through generations, the preparation of Hatteras clam chowder is generally guided by an unspoken set of principles: Fresh clams always prevail over canned. Cream is for coffee, not chowder. The broth should be clear, so don’t try to cook it too fast. Save your carrots, tomatoes, and celery for vegetable soup. Potatoes should hold their shape. And, as Kennedy says, “chowder should always be served with fried cornbread. Crackers are for restaurants.”


Hatteras Clam Chowder

Contributed by Sharon Peele Kennedy

¼ cup salt pork, diced
2 to 3 red potatoes, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 5 dozen fresh clams, chopped, juice reserved
1 cup water
Black pepper

Cook pork in a large pot until browned. Remove meat bits and set aside, leaving the rendered fat. Add potatoes, onions, clams and their juice, and water. Cover and simmer on low for 30 to 45 minutes. Sprinkle meat bits back into chowder and add pepper to taste. Let chowder sit awhile before serving. Serve with fried corn cakes.

Fried Corn Cakes

Contributed by Sharon Peele Kennedy

1 cup cornmeal
½ cup flour
½ tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
1½ cups canned cream

In a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix in eggs and cream. Let mixture sit a bit. Spoon into a skillet with hot oil as you would pancakes. Fry until golden brown on both sides.

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This story was published on May 29, 2023

Ryan Stancil

Stancil is a writer and photographer based in New Bern.