What is traditional chowder?
The true or traditional chowder is a matter of debate. There are numerous varieties, and each has its loyal following. Just bring up the subject of chowder and most likely a debate will ensue as to which style is the true, authentic chowder. True chowder lovers delight in their pursuit of the perfect chowder, from creamy white to clear and briny to tomato based. Practically everyone claims their chowder is award-winning.”
Chowder has its roots in the Latin word calderia, which originally meant a place for warming things, and later came to mean cooking pot. The word calderia also gave us cauldron, and in French became chaudiere. It is also thought to come from the old English word jowter (a fish peddler).
A simple dish of chowder, in the past considered to be “poor man’s food,” has a history that is centuries old. Vegetables or fish stewed in a cauldron thus became known as chowder in English-speaking nations, a corruption of the name of the pot or kettle in which they were cooked. Different kinds of fish stews exist in almost every sea-bound country in the world.
Fish chowders were the forerunners of clam chowder. The chowders originally made by the early settlers differed from other fish soups because they used salt pork and ship’s biscuits. Today most chowders do not include biscuits, but generally have crackers sprinkled on top. The old-fashioned chowder builder made chowder out of just about everything that flew, swam, or grew in the garden. When the main ingredient is fish or shellfish it is usually called chowder although the term fish stew is also used. Clams, hard or soft, were just one variety of seafood used and were eaten frequently, but there was a certain season for clam chowder and certainly there were other occasions when clam chowder was definitely not served.
16th and 17th Centuries
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word chowder to the fishing villages along the coast of France from Bordeaux to Brittany. There are also early European references made in the Cornwall region of Southwestern England and in the Brittany region of northwestern France. These two regions are located across the English Channel from one another. When the ships returned from the sea, every village had a large chaudiere waiting for a portion of each man’s catch, to be served later as part of the community’s welcoming celebration.
Clams and oysters were consumed in such quantities along the Atlantic coast by the American Indians that, in some favorable gathering-places, empty shells were piled into mounds ten feet high. According to the book Eating in American – A History, by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont:
The Northeastern Indians made considerable use of fish, but the Pilgrims were slow to follow their example; they did not care much for fish, except eels . . . Fish chowder was a popular dish among Northeastern Indians, but as this dish has been created spontaneously, in one form or another, along every coast in the world, we can hardly credit the Indians with having introduced it to Europeans . . . Clams became accepted to them in time, but it is on record that in 1620s the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they were “the meanest of God’s blessings.”
1751 – Even before cookery books were published in America, newspapers, magazines and travel accounts mentioned broth and soup as well as recorded recipes. According to the book 50 Chowders by Jasper White, the first and oldest-known printed fish chowder recipe was in the Boston Evening Post on September 23,1751. The use of herbs and spices in this recipe show the typical 18th century English taste for lots of seasonings:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.
The first chowders were made with a technique called “layering chowder ingredients.” A layer is single thickness of some substance. Layering is the process of making layers of different ingredients. The onions were used to prevent the lean pork from burning.
1796 – The first cookbook authored by an American was Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery or The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables and The Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted at This Country and All Grades of Life, published in 1796. Her first edition, published in the same year, did not include any soups. The second edition, published in 1800, was the first American cookbook to give a chowder recipe:
Chouder – Take a bass weighing four pounds, boil half an hour; take six slices raw salt pork, fry them till the lard is nearly extracted, one dozen crackers soaked in cold water five minutes; put the bass into the lard, also the pieces of pork and crackers, cover close, and fry for 20 minutes; serve with potatoes, pickles, apple-sauce or mangoes; garnish with green parsley.”
1828 – Mary Randolph, cousin of Mary Custis (wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee) and a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson, in her book The Virginia Housewife, has a recipe called Chowder, A Sea Dish:
Take any kind of firm fish, cut it in pieces six inches long, sprinkle salt and pepper over each piece, cover the bottom of a small Dutch oven with slices of salt pork about half boiled, lay in the fish, strewing a little chopped onion between; cover with crackers that have been soaked soft in milk, pour over it two gills of white wine, and two of water; put on the top of the oven, and stew it gently about an hour; take it out carefully, and lay it in a deep dish; thicken the gravy with a little flour and a spoonful of butter, add some chopped parsley, boil it a few minutes, and pour it over the fish – serve it up hot.
1832 – Newspaperwoman, novelist, and ardent advocate of women’s rights, Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) published her cookbook called The American Frugal Housewife. This cookbook was a must for every bride of the mid-1800s. Lydia Child described the standard layering technique of chowder-making, but also suggested additional ingredients such as lemons, beer, tomato catsup, and the first written directions to add clams.
1841 – Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), writer and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book (the most popular women’s magazine of the era). She used her platform as editor to profile successful women who otherwise may have gone unnoticed. She effectively called for the opening of the workplace to women. Sarah Hale is credited with convincing President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), sixteenth President of the United States, to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She had spent 40 years writing to congressmen, lobbying five presidents, and writing countless editorials in her campaign to create an official day of thanks. In 1841 she also wrote wrote The Good Housekeeper. In this book, she describes how to make cod chowder:
To Make Chowder – Lay some slices cut from the fat part of pork, in a deep stewpan, mix sliced onions with a variety of sweet herbs, and lay them on the pork; bone and cut a frsh cod into thin slices, and place them on the pork, then put a layer of pork, on that a layer of biscuit, then alternately the other materials until the pan is nearly full, then season with pepper and salt, put in about a quart of water, cover the stew pan very close, and let it stand, with fire above as well as below, for four hours; then skim it well, and it is done. This is an excellent dish and healthy, if not eaten too hot.
1850s – By the middle of the 1800’s chowder was a mainstay throughout the northeastern United States. Clams and shellfish began to be used in chowder because of their relative ease to accumulate, having to simply dig them up from the shore. When the country expanded to the Pacific Ocean the fishermen followed. As the fishermen’s migration continued from the Atlantic coast, the recipes for chowder were introduced along the way.
1884 – The original Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln (Mary Bailey) had a recipe for Clam Chowder:
In Fannie Merritt Farmer’s 1896 updated version of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, she has three recipe for clam chowder – Clam Chowder, Connecticut Chowder, and Fish Chowder. Later editions have recipes for New England Clam Chowder, Manhattan Chowder, and Rhode Island Clam Chowder.
Different Chowder Recipes In the America:
Different part of the country have completely different types of chowder. Lean how to make and enjoy the many different varieties of chowder:
Bermuda Fish Chowder
Fish Chowder/Fish Stew
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Minorcan Clam Chowder
New England Clam Chowder, Down East Chowder, Boston Clam Chowder
She Crab Soup
West Coast Chowder
Sources for history of different chowders:
50 Chowders: One Pot Meals-Clam, Corn and Beyond, Jasper White, Glenn Wolff, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2000.
A Brief and Partial History of the City of Salem, New Jersey, from The City of Salem Master Plan Historic Preservation Element, 1991.
American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, facsimile of the second edition printed in Albany, 1796 with an introduction by Karen Hess [Applewood Books:Bedford MA] 1996 (p. 22-3).
Bermuda cuisine explained – Condiments, savories, appetizers, main dishes and desserts, by Keith Archibald Forbes, Bermuda Online, Royal Gazette newspaper.
Boston Cooking School Cook Book, A Reprint of the 1884 Classic, by Mrs. D. A. Lincoln, Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York, 1996.
Cod Fishing – The Trade, Maritime History, Sea Book, by Doug Ford, Jersey Heritage Trust
Early American Cookery, The Good Housekeeper, 1841, by Sarah Josepha Hale, A Reprint of the 1841 Original Edition, Dover Publlications, Inc., Mineola, New York, 1996.
Eating in America: A History, by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, The Ecco Press, New York, 1976.
Food Timeline History Notes, Lynne Olver, Editor, Morris County Library, NewJersey
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851); New York: Mead and Co., 1942.
History of Soup, by Andrew F. Smith, ChefTalk.com.
History of the Union Oyster House.
Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, by John Martin Taylor, published by Bantam in 1992.
James Beard’s American Cookery, by James Beard, Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
Minorcan Datil Peppers, by Jerry Delany.
Ranhofer, Charles. The Epicurean. A Complete Treatise of Analytical and Practical Studies on the Culinary Art, Including Table and Wine Service, How to Prepare and Cook Dishes? etc., and a Selection of Interesting Bills of Fare of Delmonico’s from 1862 to 1894 (part 1). New York: C. Ranhofer, 1894.
Saltwater Foodways – New Englanders and their food, at sea and ashore, in the nineteenth century, by Sandra L. Oliver, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc. Mystic, Connecticut, 1995.
Serious Pig – An American Cook in search of his roots, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne, North Pooint Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996.
Some facts about Mediterranean food history, Salted Fish in the Mediterranean, by Clifford A. Wright.
Some Great Quotes, by Dr. Scott C. Smith.
The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Child, Unabridged and unaltered Dover (1999) republication of the edition published by Samuel S. & William Wood, New York, 1844(29th edition).
The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Seventh Edition, 1943.
The Making of the Legend of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the Tomato, by Andrew F. Smith, New Jersey History 108 (Fall/Winter 1990): 59-74.
The Minorcans in St. Augustine, St. Augustine Visitor’s Guide.
The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook, by Mrs. Mary Randolph, Baltimore, published by Plaskitt, & Cugle (reproduced Antique American Cookbooks, 1984, Oxmoor House, Inc., Birmingham, AL).
What’s in a chowder? Just about anything you want, by Aliza Green, Knight Ridder News Service, Oregonian FOODay, Tuesday, February 27, 2001.
Categories:Chowder History Food History
2 Responses to “History of Chowder”
Thanks so much for your interesting article on the history of “chowder”. I knew it was an American usage but was intrigued to find the word popping up in an Australian recipe, circa 1949, for “Potato Chowder”, which I thought would have been too early for the usage outside of the U.S. You have certainly clarified the early history of both the word and the soup for me. Love your early examples, especially the poem!
I noticed that there is no mention of potatoes as an ingredient for early chowder. At what point did potatoes enter into chowder recipes? I’ve been told recently that you can’t call a soup a chowder if it does not contain potatoes, that potatoes are the defining ingredient in a chowder. Is this accurate?