new england clam chowder

I’m generally sad to see summer go, but there’s one food item I’ve really missed this past few months: soup. With the changing of the seasons, there’s no soup more fit for fall than a warm, hearty bowl of chowder. Given that, I thought it might be interesting to look into the history of chowder–what it is and where it came from. So, here goes!

First things first. What the heck is chowder, anyway? Well, according to Drucker and Silverstein’s New England Soup Factory Cookbook, all chowders are soups with a “thick, chunky consistency.” Pretty basic, if you ask me. Others go a step further and claim chowders are made with milk or cream. Still, that’s a contentious point, particularly among those with an affinity for Manhattan clam chowder (the red!). Typically, the chunky consistency is achieved by using potatoes, onions, pork, and full chunks of the main ingredient (like clam). The thickness is achieved by way of a roux. Additionally, as an accompaniment, you’ll see crackers–commonly of the saltine or oyster variety–served with a chowder, which can further thicken the soup. To boil it down (soup pun!), you need a broth thicker than chicken or beef stock, and larger chunks of vegetables, meat, and/or seafood, which could be served on its own, or enhanced with a few oyster crackers. In my book, and for the purposes of this piece, that’s a chowder! In that way, New England and Manhattan clam chowders count. As do potato, corn, pumpkin, and seafood varieties.

According to several sources, including an article from 2015 published by The Seattle Times, the word chowder likely comes from the French word, chaudiere, which is a special type of cauldron. As you may have guessed, it’s this type of cauldron that was likely used to make what has evolved into what we now know of as chowder. While the exact origins of chowder are a bit unclear, according to the article, the tales that suggest chowders were first made on French or English fishing boats off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia about 250 years ago seem plausible. For my money, if chowder is a variation of the word chaudiere, I’m going with the first chowders being French. They may have made their way into North America via the English, but I’m guessing the English came by it by way of the French. And you know what? Since no one knows for sure, this rationalization is as good as any!

In those days, chowder’s thickness was achieved by the inclusion of something called hardtack, a foodstuff apparently, quite commonly, found on boats. This makes sense because, despite being insanely hard on your teeth, they were nearly impervious to spoilage. Regardless, they made for a good thickener, which then ensured a hearty meal on the sea. Along those lines, biscuits and crackers were used in the chowder as a thickener, instead of hardtack. And while you might encounter an ultra traditional recipe that still places a biscuit in the chowder, once potatoes became more readily available, they were more commonly used to thicken the soup, and biscuits and crackers became the accompaniments we know them to be today. Fascinating!

With the arrival of French and English seafarers to parts of Canada and New England, came the arrival of their chowder. While the earliest chowders probably originated in the 1700s, the earliest American recipes have been around since the 1800s. According to The Seattle Times article, as Americans moved west, the popularity of chowder spread, and the diversity in types of chowders became more robust. Migrating New Englanders who wanted a taste of home were sure to keep their chowder recipes active. And, as certain ingredients became more readily available, those recipes were adjusted to include local staples. Chowder has managed to adapt and evolve. It’s downright Darwinian! That’s why you now have corn, pumpkin, sweet potato, chicken, and even bean chowders along with the traditional clam and seafood varieties. Kind of an amazing food, right?!

Will you enjoy your next bowl of chowder any more now that you know what they are, and where they came from? I don’t really know. Maybe…?? But, if the topic ever comes up, you’ll be prepared, and come across as the smartest person in the room. Bonus points to you! In any event, here’s hoping as the weather gets colder, and the days get shorter, that you take comfort in enjoying a nice hearty bowl of your favorite chowder.

Related Video: How to Make Clam Chowder Bites

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