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In Search of Chowder's Common-Cracker Sidekick

NOW and then, purely on a volunteer basis, I step into Marti Reed's retail literary oasis to give her a needed and appreciated hand with her book sales. I read off the titles of new books, and then Marti knows which shelf they go on.

A long time ago we found that the back copies of Popular Mechanics should not be displayed with Etude. And since adopting a new policy, Marti sells more of my books in a week than the three hardware stores do in a year, combined. On this occasion, I noticed a new display of cookies alongside the 83 cookbooks that feature zucchini squash, and when I mentioned it, Marti said, ''Oh, those are for you!''

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She said they came from a man who looked as if he were lost, so she directed him to the senior-citizen bus stop, but he shook his head and said he was bringing in some old-fashioned common crackers for me, and would Marti be good enough, etc. The gentleman left his card, and we assume he was the very generous P. Winston Dunn of the Westminster Cracker Company Inc. in Rutland, Vt. He said he was passing this way, and as I had recently mentioned the historical common cracker in yearning accents, he assumed I would like a supply.

I did mention the common cracker of the cracker-barrel days here, and numerous readers sent me names so I can now tell cracker-seekers where to look. Such worthies as Lyman Orton in Weston, Vt., and G. H. Bent on Pleasant Street in Milton, Mass. And now, Mr. Dunn. Mr. Orton has a catalog, and Mr. Bent sends a price list. If Mr. Dunn doesn't, he will now.

In doing my homework about common crackers, I learned that it doesn't take much these days to run one of these great grocery chains. Having found Mr. Bent, I secured a haddock, and after we decanted the chowder on some Bent biscuits and renewed our pleasures, I wrote to our big chain, where a longtime friend of mine was chairman of the board and a philanthropist. Bantering pleasantly, I wrote that the oft-heard excuse that common crackers could no longer be had because nobody makes them is no good, that Mr. Bent still bends his efforts.

My friend never got my letter, as it was intercepted in the mail room and sent to the third assistant public-affairs officer in the division of cereals and bakery substitutes. And as a valued customer, I received form letter No 22. It told me that the product about which I inquired is carried regularly in stock, but only at holiday times.

The next three days I spent in close meditation about what makes a holiday for a common cracker. When I was next in one of the stores of this chain, I asked the boy who put things on the shelves about holiday times, and he said he didn't know, but perhaps Christmas?

The boy told me that when he gets a supply ''at holiday time'' they sell at once. But if he reorders, he doesn't get any. He said what he did get came from a special distributor, and it is a subsidiary company wholly owned by the same super-chain. My letter of four years ago, asking when old-time common crackers for haddock chowder will again be in season, has not stimulated a reply, although I sent a stamp.

The common cracker of Mr. Bent seems to be two inches in diameter. Mr. Dunn's is about the same size; but maybe a millimeter less. Because I ate them all, I have no statistics on the Orton biscuit. Memory tells me the ancient St. Johnsbury and Portland common crackers were perhaps a half-inch larger. All of them would ''come apart,'' giving you two halves to take butter, cheese, confiture, and any of the many things used as spreads.

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These were the crackers of the cracker barrel. A gentleman might snitch one from the barrel and let it fortify a bit of cheese from a newly displayed wheel of cheddar. But if he snitched two crackers he was expected to hand over a cent.

The finest function of the common cracker was with the fish chowder. Mostly haddock, but cusk, perch, pollock, cunner, cod, hake, and flounder found customers. Slice and dice salt pork in the big pot, frying until not quite crisp, and add diced potato and onion with generous hand. These take longer to cook than the fish, so give them enough water for that, and then add the fish.

At the right time, add milk, and pre-heat the milk so it won't curdle. Use fresh milk, but add some evaporated milk to gain body in the liquid.

A fish chowder should be somewhat ''loose.'' Leave it to stew or mull, as it will improve with age. Warming it the next day will lead to very few complaints. Along the coast here in Maine, we know what to do next, but I'll tell you now the secret of all great and good fish dishes: clam juice. Clams come from their native lair full of ocean water, and need no liquid for cooking.

Save the juice from some ''steamers'' and add a suggestion to your fish chowder. If you lack clams, get a bottle of clam ''boullion'' from the specialty shelf in the store that doesn't have crackers. Then get some crackers as per sources indicated above. Place four or five in a soup plate before decanting liberally from the pot or the tureen. Serve so the beneficiary has to soak up his own crackers. He won't mind.

True, there are those who like to take their common crackers dry and break them over the bowl of soup with their fingers, letting the bits float briefly to be admired as a work of art. The most pleasant culinary experience is to listen to a Maine family eating a fish chowder with common crackers.

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