In the ideal world that no sensible home cook inhabits on Thanksgiving day, the turkey and its infinite trimmings would follow a formal first course. Traveling even further from the realm of reality, at least as it exists in the Editor’s House of Chaos, that first course should honor the maritime heritage of colonial New England. The ways of the sea percolated inland; to support the shipbuilding industry with naval stores of timber, tar and pitch; for the export of rock and ice; for the distillation of rum as an international currency; and for the cultivation of cash crops too.
Oysters have been called the fast food of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and there is merit to the view. They could be carted inland in the cooler months because they survive without water for a while; they were cheap, and just as tasty as their descendants today.
But why stop there? Lobster was food for the poor, and appeared so frequently on the tables of indentured servants in colonial Boston that their contracts included clauses explicitly limiting the number of times a week they had to eat it. These days lobster connotes luxury, but with prices as low as $6 a live pound, it is relatively inexpensive even in these times of resilient recession.
Clams are cheap by any standard, especially in comparison to oysters or lobsters, and considerably easier to handle. And unlike their shelled cousins, a factory can process a clam with some success; minced clams are suitable for chowder, and even canned ones or those from jars will do.
Back on Fantasy Island, your Thanksgiving horde includes some decorated contestants from the Annual Rhode Island Oyster Shucking Contest, so that your other guests are deliriously distracted by the raw bar (you had shelled the steamed lobster claws in the morning). That is good; the guests are unable to torture you by insisting that they should ‘help’ in the kitchen. Your hand is steady as you stir and taste.
The Black Velvet flows, the guests slurp and talk. Arlo Guthrie fills the air with Alice’s Restaurant if you are close enough to Providence either geographically or metaphysically. The song is an annual broadcast tradition at WBRU and also available on CD and, yes, by download.
Such a starter would entail added value on this day, for the food is light and the calories few, so that all the cooking of landward food will not have proven vain. It also requires skills in short supply, so the Editor surrenders to Thanksgiving reality. She does serve shrimp expertly steamed by Sarah Dearmont and accompanied by untraditional, except to our house, Louisiana remoulade. Everyone ought to invoke her own tradition.
One of them has become dinner on the eve for whoever decides to appear, and that is when the shellfish get to shine. Thanksgiving itself generates a reasonable amount of benign tension; it really is a ridiculous dinner to put together for a crowd. Each diner would howl (or whine a little at least) without his favorite holiday standby, and the choice is unique to each of thirty guests. There is as well a limit to what you can cook ahead of time--mashed potatoes, for instance, are not happy time travelers--and roasting a turkey will not reward those with ADD. It therefore is only fitting on the night before to feed people food that is flexible enough to account for unexpected arrivals and to prepare ahead.
The food should respect tradition without cliché, which unfortunately rules out chowder if only on this singular day. The solution is clear, if not, like Rhode Island chowder, the soup. It can be dead simple or a little involved, depending on your inclination. You should serve oyster stew if strapped for skills or time, or lobster stew if not. Either way you can prep your food ahead of time to finish with minimal stress, and all you need besides your soup is a simple salad and some crusty bread. Give your guests good ham and some pickles to start and get growlers of ale, or a least a selection of bottled IPA and porter. Invoke the power of the past; those people knew their stuff.
All of this neglects our happy friend the clam, so here comes the coda. Chowder may be out, if only arbitrarily so, but another soup is not. It is plainer in the Amish, that is admired, way. It comes courtesy of the stalwart Mrs. Lincoln, less remembered perhaps than Fannie Farmer, but once the savior of Yankee cooks. Her clam soup is a minimalist joy that you can simmer on a hotplate outside the kitchen to distract your guests while you cook.
A number of recipes for traditional oyster stew, a quahog stew, Locke-Ober’s lobster stew and Mrs. Lincoln’s clam soup appear in the practical.