Down-East Haddock Chowder is like Rhode Island Fish Chowder. It calls for pilot crackers. Now, I learned something from the Rhode Island Fish Chowder experience. I learned that these things are not a garnish, they are an integral part of the recipe, whatever they are. Now R.I.F.C. gives the bewildered, and non down east cook (What's the opposite of Down East? Up West?) options. It mentions cream crackers. I know what cream crackers are. And because of this useful piece of knowledge, I was able to substitute oyster crackers for the mysterious pilot cracker.
This time, no substitutes were offered but I figured oyster crackers would do okay, and remembered to buy them when I went to the market on Saturday afternoon. Another obstacle presented itself at the fish market, where I went first. They had no haddock.
"We don't have it," said the Saturday guy behind the counter.
"Well, do you ever get it?" I inquired, having learned from the smoked haddock experience that what the Saturday guy behind the counter says isn't necessarily the final word on the issue.
Then I decided what the hell, cod could substitute for haddock, so I bought cod. The store did not have anything remotely resembling oyster crackers, or the mysterious pilot cracker. What it does have is a whole aisle of Thai condiments, but, why not, since the owners seem to be from Thailand, or somewhere else in Southeast Asia. I got the oyster crackers at Safeway along with everything else.
I decided to start the chowder after I got home from the grocery store, even though we were going to a play (The Pirates of Penzance, by Gilbert and Sullivan) that night. I got it done and even had time to walk the dog, also named Haddock, so we could eat before we left. Now, the recipe calls for 3 cups of milk and three large pilot crackers crumbled. Since I had no idea what that was, or how much, I went with two cups of milk and two cups of oyster crackers. The crackers absorb liquid and make a sort of glutinous, but tasty, mass in the chowder.
Today, as I sat down at the computer, I consulted Wikipedia on the subject of pilot crackers and found out some interesting stuff. Crown Pilot Crackers were the oldest crackers produced by Nabisco, originally dating to 1792. They were used in "historical recipes" for stuffing and chowder. Nabisco discontinued the production of pilot crackers in 1996, sparking massive protests in New England, and eventually an episode on CBS Sunday Morning News. This prompted Nabisco to gear up for more cracker production. Unfortunately, the interest in pilot crackers dwindled over time, and Nabisco dropped them again in 2008.
They continue to be produced other places, such as Hawaii, and seem to be popular with backpackers and survivalists. Mountain House, a place that makes backpacker meals, sells them by mail. Again, according to Wikipedia, the Australian military refers to them as ANZAC wafers. So, now we know what pilot crackers are, and why you can't buy them in stores.
Down-East Haddock (or cod) Chowder
1/3 cup diced salt pork
1 onion, finely chopped
3 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 pounds haddock fillets, cut into strips or cubes
1 quart water
1 rib celery with leaves, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon mace
3 cups milk
3 large pilot crackers, crumbled (See blog text for info on the pilot cracker.)
1. Cook the salt pork in a kettle until crisp. Remove the pieces and reserve.
2. In the fat remaining in the kettle, saute the onion until tender but not browned. Add the potatoes, fish, water, celery, salt, pepper and mace. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
3. Stir in the milk, crackers and reserved pork pieces and heat to boiling.
Makes about six servings.