For many years the middle of February meant trotting off into the woods south of Boston for an annual winter hike in the snow. It was an Applachian Mountain Club event called the Soupe de Poisson. Billed as a stroll through the Blue Hills to build an appetite for the Soupe that followed at Ponkapog Campground, the route was circuitous and always featured some beautiful views from the heights and some dramatic passages through still woods. The woods were quiet except for the sounds of wind and occasional bunches of Chickadees chattering at us. Being that it was February, the dates of the walks tended to turn out to be frosty. But the ground underneath varied from bare to soaked or snow-packed.

At the end of the trail was Ponkapog Campground, an Appalachian Mountain Club facility that featured year-round camping. In later years the Soupe was served in the camp lodge building. Ably made by volunteers varied slightly from year to year but was always welcome at the end of a chilly day in the woods. After becoming a regular at the event, I always felt a feeling of homecoming when the campground finally came into view. I hiked steadily over the years with a small group of hikers, and the Soupe was a sort of rendezvous for many of us as the winter rounded out. Before we hit the trail on our round of regular hikes and mountain climbing trips, it was a perfect opportunity to hug old friends and plan future mayhem at Mount Katahdin. For the most part, we hadn’t seen each other since fall, and the Soupe was an excellent opportunity to catch up and talk about spring hikes and trips.

Towards the end of my participation, the Soupe had been an annual event for over fifty years. Like many regular repeating rituals, its start had been very irregular. Ron Gower had been a weekend custodian at “Ponky” for years. Sometime during his tenure, he began to have a February gathering of friends and hikers at his cabin for old fashioned fish chowder. One year a regular brought his fiance along. The young French woman was interested in what she was about to eat and was unfamiliar with the term chowder. Ron explained that it was a fish soup, and she exclaimed, ” Oh, Soupe de Poisson!” After that, the event became the Soupe de Poisson. Wags in the group soon reduced that to just the “soup” or the “poison soup.”
Originally the Soupe had been prepared over an open fire in front of Ron’s cabin. The little clearing could get jammed with snowshoers, cross country skiers, and hikers. In earlier times, you brought your cup and spoon. A small contribution, usually a dollar, was collected to defray the feast’s cost, which in my time included luscious brownies.
Now, I have to add here that Ron informed me of two things early on in our acquaintance. Correctly, a chowder referred to the pot the soup was made in ( preferably cast iron), and all authentic chowders have a fish head in them – getting an eye in your bowl is considered lucky. In later years though, I never recall a cod head in the pot, nor the shriek of surprise that a cod eyeball can scare up from the uninitiated.
To the best of my knowledge, somewhere around year sixty, the event slipped away. Gone, but not forgotten on a frosty middle of February as I put on my snowshoes and allow the chickadees to chatter at the invader in their woods and recall a cheery fire and warm gathering in the woods.

Coastal Cooking – Finnan Haddie, & Chowder

Sunday at a Farmer’s Market, I discussed smoked vacuum-packed haddock with a vendor. While she extolled the virtues of her process, I merely proclaimed sotto vocce ” finnan haddie.” She caught my reverential whisper. The promise in her look implied that with the tiny vacuum-packed candy bar sized piece of haddock encased in plastic, this sacrament of coastal eating could be mine. I resisted sneering as I turned away. I had been used to servings of smoked haddock cooked slowly in cream, browned nicely, that tested your capability to push the dish away. This tiny piece was not going to do it.

I was not always enamored of things like Finnan Haddie. I grew up in New York City where they made soup – I can no longer refer to it as Chowder- out of clams in a tomatoey base. Being allergic to bivalves ( clams, oysters, scallops – you know), I couldn’t touch the stuff. But I never knew about fish chowder. So, I got a real education when I left “The City” for points north.

I learned rapidly that from an old New Englander that Chowder had initially been the term for the pot in which you cooked the soup. That person, from Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, affirmed that no chowder would be authentic without the head of the fish included in the pot. Getting the eye in your bowl was great luck, and the cheeks and tongue delicacies.
I also learned that the head, eyes, cheeks, and tongues were not universal to everyone’s recipe. To diverge a bit, I learned that tongues and cheeks were a specialty dish of their own. The cod cheeks can be about the size of chicken thighs, but much more tasty, and the best part of the fish. Not everyone gets enthused about tongues; they can be a bit slimy and not to everyone’s taste. I rarely found anyone who had kind words about the eyes.
Now you’ll find me tucked away in someplace like Gordon’s in Portland, or maybe Bob Lobster in Newburyport inhaling a heaping bowl of Chowder. But the first time that dish was put in front of me, I was so impolite as to ask, “what’s the main course?” Of course, the Chowder was the main course, with ample addition of sea biscuit. I was taken aback. In New York, my experience was that a cup of Chowder was an appetizer. Here was a massive bowl with a mountain of fish heaped in the middle.

With regards to finnan haddie, it seems to have originated in the area of Aberdeen, Scotland and spread widely throughout England. With good haddock stocks available offshore in New England, it became a popular dish on the coast. I became familiar with it as a dinner item, but I understand that some in England prefer it as a breakfast food. Like the saying:” You can’t get there from here” you can’t get suitable ingredients for a great finnan Haddie out of a supermarket. That thin stuff they sell has been injected with water and been coated with something called “liquid smoke” rather than being correctly smoked. It’s an abomination.

Search for the real deal. As the saying goes, accept no substitutions. You won’t be sorry.

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