Chowder is a soup or stew of seafood (such as clams or fish) usually made with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions, and other vegetables (such as potatoes).
In the past considered to be “poor man’s food,” has a history that is centuries old.
The word “chowder” is a corruption of the French for pot or cauldron – chaudière , and chowder may have originated among Breton fishermen who brought the custom to Newfoundland, whence it spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.
In the United States, early chowder making is traced to New England. It was a bowl of simmering chowder by the sea side that provided in its basic form “sustenance of body and mind – a marker of hearth and home, community, family and culture”. It is a food which evolved along the coastal shoreline of New England as a “congerie” of simple things, very basic and cooked simply.
Legend has it that clam chowder was first created by a group of shipwrecked French soldiers off the coast of Maine. As the ship sank, the men grabbed what provisions they could carry and swam to shore. They made camp there — soaked in salt water, with almost no possessions to their names. They gathered some clams and threw them into a large pot they called a Chaudière. The men cooked the clams in water with the potatoes, crackers, and pork that they had salvaged, and managed to create quite a tasty dish, which became the precursor for future “chowders.”
The first known chowder recipe was published in the Boston Evening Post in 1751. It was a layered dish made using fish, salt pork, onions, hardtack, spices, pepper, water, red wine and herbs.
18th century chowders were varied – meat or poultry chowders were made, and wine, spices, herbs, cider, and other flavourings were often added. Pounded common crackers or ship biscuits served as thickening.
In 1890, in the magazine American Notes and Queries, it was said that the dish was of French origin. Among French settlers in Canada it was a custom to stew clams and fish laid in courses with bacon, sea biscuits, and other ingredients in a bucket called a “chaudière”, and it thus came to be invented.
Then the Native Americans adopted it as “chawder”, which was then corrupted as “chowder” by the Yankees. After the Revolutionary war, the Fourth of July was celebrated with picnics, fireworks, dances and dinners. The foods served varied, changing with the customs of each region. Chowder was one of the dishes commonly served for the celebrations in the Northern United States.
Clam chowder is a moniker used to describe just about any soup that contains clams and broth. Most clam chowders are also made with potatoes, onions, or celery, while some even add in bacon. Oyster or saltine crackers almost always accompany the soup. The dish originated in the Northeastern United States, but is now commonly served in restaurants throughout the country.
The two most popular types of clam chowder are the cream-based New England version and Manhattan clam chowder.
New England clam chowder is typically made with chopped clams and diced potatoes, in a mixed cream and milk base, often with a small amount of butter.
Manhattan clam chowder is a soup traditionally made from clams, pork, herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Despite its name, it originated in Rhode Island, not Manhattan.
In the Southern and Midwestern United States, fresh sweet corn (maize) often replaces the clams in chowder.
In the United States, recipes for corn chowder date back to at least 1884, at which time a corn chowder recipe was published in the Boston Cook Book, authored by Mary Lincoln of the Boston Cooking School.
Southern Illinois Chowder, also referred to as “downtown chowder”, is a thick stew or soup that is very different from the New England and Manhattan chowders. The main ingredients are beef, chicken, tomatoes, cabbage, lima beans, and green beans. Traditionally, squirrel meat was a common addition.
A popular dish in Pacific Northwest cuisine, smoked salmon chowder gets its red color from tomato paste and is prepared with celery, garlic, leeks, chives, potatoes and Alaskan smoked salmon. The best known smoked salmon chowders are made at Pike Place Market and by Ivar’s Salmon House, both in Seattle, Washington.
In most cases, particularly in the Maritime Provinces, Canadian chowder is thinner and more seafood-forward than its creamier American counterparts.