On Clam Chowder and Alaskan Christmas Trees

Growing up in Alaska, we usually spent Christmas Eve at our cabin on Big Lake, in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. While I’m almost certain this wasn’t a Christmas (merely a dead of winter, judging by the fact that it’s pitch black at dinner time) shot, this was the typical situation: all the adults at the indoor picnic table, and me and my cousin at the kids’ table. I’m the cute one on the left.

This photo is striking to me because if you notice in the upper left corner there’s an old waterfront sign from Maui. Over my cousin’s shoulder is the big bin where we kept our firewood indoors (it has to come inside and warm up otherwise it will pop and spew cinders everywhere when you throw it in the stove) and come to think of it the positioning of the kids’ table is likely no accident: it’s right in front of the stove where the cabin is the warmest (as Alaskan children there was next to no fear we’d injure ourselves on the wood stove, having been raised from birth not to – I’m told my first words were “That’s hot!” – and not in a Paris Hilton sort of way).

Whether we were in Alaska or Hawai’i while I was growing up, there was always a constant remind of the “other” home in either location, and whether I was looking out the window at palm trees or birch trees, I seemed to find myself longing for whatever I wasn’t looking at. The wanderlust continues to this day.

In my family, we always have clam chowder on Christmas Eve, as sort of an antidote to the massive amounts of office candy and Christmas cookie dough and various other gluttonous items we’ve been consuming throughout the preceding lazy school break days. When my cousin and I were older, Christmas break meant getting dropped off at Fireweed Theatre (it’s since been torn down) with enough cash for several matinees and enough concession snacks to satisfy our daily calorie value.

At any rate, the clam chowder was welcome on Christmas Eve as a sort of an easy simple dishes-will-be-clean-by-morning meal and comes right before the opening of a single gift (two if what you opened turned out to be batteries or an extension cord) which was a concession between my Father’s family tradition (Grandma, who was a single Mom, made everybody open everything on Christmas Eve because she worked at the Club Paris all day on Christmas) and my Mother’s (Christmas Day was sacrosanct, with nary a gift opened before then). At the cabin, going out and finding a tree was the biggest tradition each year. From 1980 until 1988 we had a log cabin on Long Island at Big Lake (pictured above), which lay about a mile Southeast of a large swamp which gave way into a forest of spruce trees. The trick was, after several pitchers of hot buttered rum, to snowmachine (not snowmobile as other Northern dwellers seem to think it’s actually called – it’s “machine” for short, after all, not “mobile”, and to Hell with spell check for telling me otherwise) far enough across the swamp, where the spruce trees still grew but were spindly and sickly looking, to the forest where they were more robust and fare more suited for Tannenbauming the living room.

Aside, I realize the evils of drinking and snowmachining, and there were definitely some times where people got thrown from their machines. I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying that’s what typically happened in those simpler times (the 1980s). It’s kind of like watching Mad Men and congratulating yourself on the enlightened present. There was some trial and error. One year, having forgotten the trailer for the tree, the gentlemen strapped the freshly cut tree to a tarp and dragged it across the frozen lake to the cabin to find there wasn’t a pine needle left on the thing by the time they got back to the front door. Another very cold Christmas the temperature dropped into the -20s and we collected a gorgeous tree, remembered the trailer, and got it back to the house, massaged it through the front door and set it up in the middle of the living room. The practice was to take the stump, hold the tree upright and give it a couple good thwacks on the floor to knock off the snow and frost and ice and whatever critter was hanging on for dear life. Upon the first thwack (my Father seems to remember it was my Uncle’s fault on this occasion), every single pine needle on the permafrosted tree fell to the floor in a great blizzard of evergreen. There were several Christmases that required multiple trips to retrieve the tree.

Although no strangers to day drinking us, it never made sense to go out and find the tree while it was still daylight. For one, the sun had typically set by the time the brunch dishes were cleared, and not being career drunks, it would typically be at least early evening by the time the company was properly enough sauced to remember it was time to go look for a tree. We had found another cabin on the other side of the lake by this time, and we set off with a bottle of Grand Marnier and plenty of good cheer to pick out a tree from either the woods behind us, the shore of the frozen lake, or a neighbor’s yard, whichever we happened upon first. The nice thing about a heavy snow on a large lake in the North is that the great expanse of snow tends to provide ample reflection of even the tiniest sliver of crescent moonlight, and we really didn’t turn our flashlights on until my Uncle (yes, the same one) who was walking too close to the shore managed to fall through some thin ice near a beaver dam and find himself in frigid water about halfway up his calves, but thankfully the bracing effect of the drink meant we pulled him out more or less unaffected. And onward we marched, across the small cove and around the small point and back toward the house, scanning the shoreline for the perfect tree until we found one. All the others until then had been too tall (and nobody felt like climbing), or had too many branches missing from too many spots. We finally found the perfect tree, and some swigs of the bottle later had cut it down, turned around, and realized we were standing in our front yard.

But wasn’t it indeed gorgeous?

The vacuum attachment visible on the floor was used to clear up the extra pine needles. The presents at right are stacked in a dog sled that my Grandfather had built himself, and as always, there are touches of Hawai’i above the television (a cross stitch of our Hawai’i Nei on the right, and a framed photo of the Na Pali Coast from Kaua’i on the left). You can even spot the bottle of Grand Marnier on the table next to my stuffed husky Kiana, and a cranberry-and-popcorn tree garland in progress.

In settings like this, with such clutter and excitement, that the clam chowder worked great for a crowd. I leave you with the recipe, as well as the very important advice that like any home cooked recipe, it’s best to make it your own. This very evening as we enjoyed ours, for example, my Mother seemed to recall Grandma always put an entire stick of butter in at the very end, and Dad seemed to remember it was only a cube, but it’s immaterial because both Mom and  I now leave the butter completely out. At the Lake we always used evaporated milk in a can at the end, because we always had some and Mom had grown up using it Spenard in the ’50s before milk was really affordable (or available at any given time) but these days we use fat-free half and half.

Merry Christmas, Mele Kalikimaka, and Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

The Lairds’ Christmas Eve Clam Chowder

4-6 strips of bacon, cut into lardons

3-4 stalks of celery

1 large onion

Fresh or dried parsley

2 cans clams (or 1/2 lb fresh razor clams, steamed, shelled, and diced)

2 bottles clam juice

1 pound of russet potatoes, peeled and diced

salt and pepper to taste

Splash of evaporated milk or half n half

Fry  lardons until golden brown but not crispy, drain fat. Dice onion and celery and heat with lardons over medium heat until translucent, about five minutes. Add clams and clam juice and potatoes. Add salt, pepper, and parsley.  Add enough water to cover then add about 2-4 cups depending on how long you want it to simmer. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer until potatoes are tender. Remove from heat Let it cool for about 15-20 minutes so the milk doesn’t burn, then stir in until chowder reaches desired color. Serve with saltines and gin. This makes a soupier chowder than many are used to; if you prefer it thicker you can remove some of the cooked potatoes and puree, then return to the soup to thicken, or cheat and add instant mashed potatoes.

 

 

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