Phil Madeira's Rhode Island Clam Chowder
Nashville musician, singer, and songwriter Phil Madeira drives east across the Newport Bridge, his wheels spinning, revisiting Rhode Island, land of his youth. His destination: the Newport Music Festival to hear his buddy John Scofield play. While Phil has lived in Nashville since 1983, this visit home strikes a chord in him, calling him to sing about his home state. After years of playing the music of others -- Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss -- Phil is ready to record his own songs. Fittingly, he names the album Providence. In keeping with the spirit of this homecoming, it seemed only natural to revisit the foods of his youth as well.
We met up with Phil in his small apartment kitchen in Belmont to snag his recipes for two Yankee classics: Johnny Cakes and Rhode Island Clam Chowder. As Phil tells it, his mom was a typical Yankee cook—basic and bland. For Phil, the South brought musical success and a taste for hot sauce, cayenne, and black pepper, all of which he sneaks into his chowder (though the foundation is very much true to his mom’s).
As Phil chopped onions, the bacon sizzled, filling the kitchen with smoke— one of the hazards of cooking in small spaces. With the hall door opened, he continued cooking, adding the potatoes, then the clams—fresh ones in a tub from Whole Foods. “Not bad,” he exclaimed as he took in their briny aroma, high praise from a kid who grew up on clams and lobster. Next went in a good dose of half-and-half and a dribble of the clam juice. He moved the pot to the back of the stove on low to cook the potatoes. “It will taste even better tomorrow,” he said. He then turned his attention to the Johnny Cakes, a Rhode Island breakfast staple similar to pancakes, only they’re made with cornmeal instead of flour. Although his family only had them for special occasions, they’re super simple to prepare. Upon frying them up, Phil topped them with butter and lingonberry preserves, a food reflecting his Swedish roots.
As we discussed food, the subject of pie came up. “Now that’s what I really like to do is bake…blueberry pie,” exclaimed Phil. After tasting his chowder and Johnny cakes, we’ll definitely be back for his pie.
Came down South a young man
To play that Nashville Rag
I saw the light One snowy night
And I packed my carpetbag
Took some getting used to
Life was different than up North
For a Rhode Island Yankee
On Jefferson Davis Court.
–A Rhode Island Yankee on Jefferson Davis Court, Providence