Chapter 1: The Folklore and History of Chowder
Throughout this book, I inject bits and pieces of the folklore and history of chowder as it pertains to the recipe or subject at hand. This time line is intended to put those bits and pieces in order, to give you a clearer idea of the evolution of chowder. Chowder-like seafood stews and dishes occurred simultaneously in many parts of the world, but this book is about a specific dish -- North American chowder, and the variations that derived from it. The early history of chowder, prior to 1751, is shrouded in a lack of written information, but from that point forward, the story unfolds in cookbooks and other published writings. Recipes tell the story of different ingredients and how chowders changed as certain foods became abundant and fashionable. It should be noted, however, that those recipes are often a reflection of changes that occurred years before. Other written material, letters, periodicals, and books, help give us an idea of the cultural importance of chowder, especially along the Atlantic coast. The information I used to piece this history together came from dozens of wonderful books, but three in particular were invaluable: Sandra L. Oliver's Saltwater Foodways, Richard J. Hooker's Book of Chowder, and John Thorne's Down East Chowder. The complete list can be found in the bibliography on page 237. I apologize, in advance, for digressing into a somewhat personal overview in the last thirty years of the time line that follows, but this was my era, I lived and breathed it, so I wanted to relate my own experience of it.
Although it is certain that chowder comes into existence at some point during this period, everything else is speculation, of which there is no shortage. The French word for cauldron, chaudière or chaudron, is often referred to as a point of origin for the name, but the word jowter, meaning fishmonger, and its dialect variations, chowter and chowder, were being used in Cornwall and Devonshire, England, in the sixteenth century. Two seafood stews, faire la chaudière, from the fishing villages of Brittany, and chaudrée de Fouras, from the Fouras region of France, are frequently mentioned by food writers as a possible predecessor to chowder, while others point to the English crusted pye, layered with salt pork and fish. French settlers in Canada, French fishermen, Channel Islander (English) settlers in Massachusetts, English fishermen, and Native Americans from the Micmac tribe are all among the list of suspects who may have cooked the original chowders. Others speculate that it was the mixture of French and English fishermen, possibly in the fishing camps along the Newfoundland coast, that gave rise to the creation of chowder. The basic staples carried aboard most fishing vessels in the early 1700s -- salt pork, hardtack (ship's biscuit), and fresh fish -- make it easy to believe that chowder originated at sea. As John Thorne points out in his book Down East Chowder, given the limited staples aboard fishing boats during this period, one would "come to wonder not how chowder came into existence but what else they ever found to eat." Whether of French or English origin, or a combination of the two, chowder is not claimed by either culture. And although the English seem well aware of chowder during the eighteenth century, it all but disappears from their repertoire soon afterward. It is in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England that chowder making flourishes and where chowder becomes an integral part of the diet and culture.
Benjamin Lynde, a New Englander, mentions in his diary that he had "dined on a fine chowdered cod" -- the first written reference to North American chowder.
On September 23, the Boston Evening Post publishes the oldest-known printed recipe for fish chowder:
First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning:
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
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're the Same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men,
Last Bottle of Claret, with Water eno' to smother 'em
You'l have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.
These directions teach us the method of layering chowder ingredients, which is how all chowders are made at the time. A few New England cooks make chowder using the layering technique to this day. The fact that the onions are used to prevent the "pork from burning" tells us that the salt pork of the time is very lean. Also take note of the bold use of herbs and spices, a practice that would die out in the early 1800s. Red wine is used in this chowder, but it most likely speaks of affluent Bostonians; it is unlikely that average working people could afford to season their chowder with a bottle of red wine.
Hannah Glasse publishes the recipe "To Make Chouder, a Sea Dish" in the eighth English edition of her Art of Cookery. Her chowder is similar to other layered chowders, with "pickled pork," onions, herbs, biscuit, and cod, but the recipe departs from tradition with its optional "oysters, or truffles or morels." The reference to the sea in the title gives credence to the speculation of chowder's maritime origins. This cookbook was first published in England, but Glasse's is one of the last chowder recipes to appear in an English cookbook.
John Pearson opens America's first commercial bakery in Newburyport, Massachusetts, producing Pilot Bread, a refined version of hardtack, also called ship's biscuit, an important chowder ingredient. Pearson's bakery business would eventually evolve into what became the National Biscuit Company, better known as Nabisco. Under the name Crown Pilot crackers, Nabisco produces Pearson's version of hardtack to this day. Hardtack was used in the earliest chowders. Aboard ships, it may have been the only source of carbohydrates. It is unlikely that hardtack was added to enhance chowder: Chowder was, more likely, a means to make hardtack more palatable.
The first American cookbook, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, is published. Her first edition does not include a chowder recipe, but the second edition, published in 1800, does contain one. Amelia Simmons's Chouder is made with bass, and although no potatoes are called for in her recipe, she suggests it be served with "potatoes, pickles, applesauce or mangoes." This is the first mention of potatoes in a chowder recipe.
Two different chowder recipes are published. Thomas Cooper, a distinguished educator, uses anchovy sauce as well as mushroom ketchup to flavor his cod chowder in (get this) A Treatise of Domestic Medicine...to Which Is Added, a Practical System of Domestic Cookery. The other recipe, by Mary Randolph, in her book The Virginia Housewife, uses "any kind of firm fish" along with the usual salt pork, onions, and crackers, but her chowder removes the fish from the pot and thickens "the gravy with flour and butter" before pouring it back over the fish. It sounds very thick and heavy, with a small amount of broth, which is typical of early fish chowders. The tradition of little broth or liquid in early chowders is probably reflective of the fact that aboard ships, fresh water was one of the most precious ingredients.
The common cracker, which, along with Crown Pilot crackers, has become the quintessential chowder cracker, is produced commercially in Vermont for the first time (as stated on the bag of the Vermont Country Store's common crackers). These round, puffed, hard crackers were first known as Boston crackers and most likely originated in that bustling seaport.
Lydia Maria Child publishes the twelfth edition of The American Frugal Housewife. In a section simply called Fish, she explains how to layer salt pork, onions, crackers, and fish to make a chowder in typical New England fashion, but she mentions lemons and beer as possible additions and, of even greater significance, she states that "tomato catchup is very excellent" and "a few clams are a pleasant addition." The tomato is just beginning to gain acceptance among Americans, who, until just a few years prior, still considered it to be poisonous. This recipe includes the first written reference to using clams in chowder, even though they are not the main ingredient. Four years later, Eliza Leslie, from Philadelphia, would write in her Directions for Cookery that "chowder may be made of clams"; she also becomes an early advocate of the potato as a chowder ingredient, suggesting "a layer of sliced potatoes."
Famous statesman and chowder maker Daniel Webster records his method for making fish chowder, calling for a combination of the head of a cod and fillets of haddock cooked in a "sufficient quantity of water." He also uses "good Irish potatoes" and just "a few of the largest Boston crackers" in what seems to be the first modern, brothy chowder. From this time forward, potatoes become more popular and important in chowder, as the use of hardtack and crackers in the chowder itself decreases, eventually becoming food that is served alongside chowder.
Several chowder recipes using clams and tomatoes appear. Clam chowders are becoming accepted as a suitable substitute for fish chowders, but it will be another fifty years before they become widely popular. Tomatoes are becoming a popular food, but are used sparingly in chowders, especially those from Cape Cod and to the north. Tomatoes have not yet fallen victim to the New England versus Manhattan rivalry; in fact, one Boston recipe from 1851 from The American Matron includes tomatoes and milk. Milk, cream, and butter are beginning to appear in a few recipes -- an 1860 fish chowder recipe from the archives of the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, includes two cups of cream and three tablespoons of butter.
Milk, cream, and butter steadily gain acceptance as chowder ingredients, especially in northern New England, somewhat less so in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and to the south. Potatoes, on the other hand, are becoming common in chowders up and down the Atlantic coast. Recipes for the first farmhouse chowders, made with chicken or veal, and one made exclusively with potatoes, appear on the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, as documented in Nantucket Receipts (1874). Chowder is no longer a simple dish of fish or clams: it has become a genre, a way to make dinner. Now deeply ingrained in the culture of New England, it is reaching its all-time high in popularity. Chowder parties, as they are called, are becoming a happy summer pastime along the New England coast. Families pack up a kettle, dishes, flatware, and ingredients for chowder making, as well as cold foods, watermelons, and dessert, and head to the beach for a picnic with chowder as the main event. A fire is built above the high tide line, a tripod set up, and the kettle hung over the embers. The key ingredient, usually a big bluefish or bass, fish that feed close to the shore, is freshly caught out of the surf. Making the chowder is part of the entertainment, and as these parties grow to become events that include seventy or more people, sometimes affiliated with a church, business, or political party, the "chowder master" becomes an important position, much like the "bake master" at a clambake. Clambakes are also popular during this time.
Mary J. Lincoln, the first principal of the famous Boston Cooking School and predecessor to Fannie Merritt Farmer, the second and more famous principal, writes a beautifully descriptive recipe for fish chowder in Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book, taking the reader carefully through every step and variation of the fish chowder process. But two other even more important factors make this book a classic. First, Mrs. Lincoln lists measured ingredients separately from the instructions, a format that is still used today. Second, she includes the first-known recipe for corn chowder, a dish that would become the king of farmhouse chowders, quite possibly the most popular chowder ever! Over the next twenty years, there would be a flurry of corn chowder recipes, all quite similar, printed in books and periodicals from Maine to California.
A recipe by Sarah T. Rorer, appearing in Mrs. Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book, uses bacon, the first chowder recipe I've seen up to this point in chowder's history that does not include salt pork. Salt pork would remain an important chowder ingredient, but bacon would become even more popular during the next century, as dependence on salt pork declined and good-quality salt pork became more difficult to procure.
Charles Ranhoffer, the former chef of Delmonico's, New York City's finest and America's most famous restaurant, publishes his tome The Epicurean, which includes a tomato-based clam chowder, which may possibly be the point of origin, at least for the name, of Manhattan Clam Chowder. This also begins the era of chowder as a menu item in restaurants. Both tomatoes and clams have become an industry on Long Island, so the combination seems inevitable -- summer hotels in Coney Island serve so much chowder they are referred to as chowder mills. Another theory of the origin of Manhattan Clam Chowder credits the Neapolitan immigrants, who adapted their zuppa di vongole (clam soup) for American palates.
Fannie Merritt Farmer includes five different chowders, including a Lobster Chowder, in the first edition of her Boston Cooking School Cookbook, a book that would go through dozens of revisions and reprints and is still in print today, as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. There is nothing revolutionary about her recipes, which are very similar to her mentor Mary J. Lincoln's, but the inclusion of a variety of chowders marks the start of chowder as a category in New England cookbooks.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, chowder has become well established as a genre in American cooking. The style of chowder is more brothy than its nineteenth-century predecessor; almost all include potatoes, and crackers are served on the side. The use of salt pork or bacon remains a constant. Regional styles and preferences begin to take hold, creating rivalries, at least in the minds of food writers. In Maine, cooks prefer soft-shell clams, while on Cape Cod, quahogs are the shellfish of choice. All of northern New England abhors the tomato-based chowders from Connecticut and New York, while in Rhode Island, cooks add neither milk nor tomatoes to their chowders. In other regions, like the Chesapeake Bay and New Orleans, chowder is just one of many seafood stews in the repertoire of seafood dishes. In San Francisco and other places on the Pacific coast, chowders, especially clam, abalone, and salmon, are quite popular. Farmhouse chowders of every description, made from beans, parsnips, eggs, turnips, mushrooms, mixed vegetables, and chicken, are offered as recipes in a multitude of cookbooks (which are becoming an industry in their own right). Famous chefs like Alexander Filippini, Louis P. DeGouy, and Dione Lucas join ranks with Charles Ranhoffer, adding their magic to the legacy of chowder, with the use of rich stocks and the reintroduction of herbs and spices.
Codfish Chowder, Newfoundland Style, a recipe printed in The Gold Cook Book, by Louis P. DeGouy, serves as a reminder that chowder, which may have originated in Atlantic Canada, is still an integral part of that region's cuisine. The story of chowder in Canada (to my knowledge) has yet to be written, but in my discussions with friends who hail from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the other Maritime Provinces, I've learned that chowder making has remained a steadfast tradition throughout the centuries.
In terms of America's culinary history, we are now entering the dark ages. Economic boom and a passion for all things modern fuel an era where strip malls, fast food chains, and convenience foods capture the hearts of Americans. Chowder making in many homes begins with a can opener, and in the hands of professional cooks of questionable ability, chowder is quickly being degraded to a soup-like paste, with pathetic bits of rubber-like clams and tasteless potatoes.
I respectfully call these the "Jackie O. years." With her great style and love of French cuisine, this widely imitated public figure sparks a period of intense francophilia in America's restaurant culture that lasts well beyond her years in the White House. True American cooking during this period is found almost solely in the homes of those few who are passionate about their culinary heritage and in obscure roadhouses. Fine dining means French or "Continental-style" cuisine, much of which is phony or second-rate, an embarrassment to lovers of real French cuisine. Of the food media, only a few strong voices, most notably those of James Beard and Evan Jones, speak and write with pride about American food.
Note: I began my career in the early seventies, when, as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, American food was taught in conjunction with cafeteria feeding. (Corn chowder was part of that curriculum.) The only restaurant at the school in those years was the Escoffier Room, where we learned the basics of classical French cuisine -- excellent training, but a reinforcement of the perception of American food as inferior. In the first eight years of my career, I never worked in a restaurant where the menu was written in English! Even at the Parker House in Boston, America's oldest continually operating hotel dining room, Boston scrod was listed as "Schrod de Boston."
In this environment, which is quietly accepted by the food service industry, chowder continues to decline in quality and prestige.
For every action there is a reaction, and in the early 1980s, the food media fuels the fire of what is termed the "New American Cuisine." Taking my cues from a handful of bold young American chefs, I open the first hotel dining room in Boston in 1982, at the Bostonian Hotel. I present to guests a menu printed in English and offer regional American dishes, lobster and corn chowder among them. Young American chefs are suddenly being commended for breaking the barriers imposed by the definition of fine dining in the past. Many of us are exploring our American roots, looking for inspiration to create new dishes loosely based on a combination of cooking styles from different regions across the United States, as well as France (with which we are more than familiar), the Mediterranean, and Asia. Chowder is not exactly redefined during this era, but it is given a new lease on life and a second look by chefs and food writers; in 1985, a lobster and corn chowder even makes the cover of Food & Wine magazine. There are enough new variations of chowder to change at least some food lovers' perception of chowder as a lifeless, dull, pasty soup. The New American Cuisine results in a hodgepodge of cooking styles that range from brilliant to bizarre, but although it is short-lived, it levels the playing field, legitimizing not only American food, but many other indigenous cuisines from around the world as well. "Fine dining" no longer exclusively means French dining, although some of the greatest food is still being cooked by young French chefs in America -- a few of whom have been known to make their own excellent versions of chowder.
In the high-tech, fast-paced culture of America at the turn of the twenty-first century, the appreciation of good food has increased, not declined. However, our ability to find the time to cook, especially on workdays, is becoming a thing of the past. But since chowder only improves when it is made ahead, and will keep for at least three days if properly refrigerated, it provides an opportunity for a very quick and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day. It is my opinion that chowder, in some form or other, will endure, as it has for more than two hundred and fifty years, as sustenance and pleasurable eating in the new century.
50 Chowders, by Jasper White, the first hardcover book of contemporary chowders, is published.
Copyright © 2000 by Jasper White