History of Chowder

Food and Travel,In Season,Regional Food
August 30, 2012

A concise history of the creamy and comforting stew we know today.

Wild Rice Chowder with Greens
Mark Boughton Photography / Styling by Teresa Blackburn
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Ask for “chowder,” and you could be repeating the first word coined by Europeans in America. Bring a spoonful to your mouth, and you could be enjoying the first European-American dish. According to some historians, the word “chowder” was coined long before the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod. Fishermen from various parts of Europe were haunting the fertile waters of Newfoundland since John Cabot’s voyage of 1497. In their multilingual gatherings, they corrupted the French word chaudiere, the pot in which French fishermen made their stews, into the word “chowder.”

Those early chowders were different from our own. There was no milk—the nearest cow was thousands of miles away. And certainly there were no potatoes; this was several centuries before that tuber would complete its triangular journey from South America to Europe to North America. Yet we would recognize the dish: salt pork provided fat, onions added flavor, and ship’s biscuits thickened the stew teeming with cod and clams.

The addition of tomatoes was likely the work of Italian and Portuguese immigrants, and a chef from New York’s legendary Delmonico’s restaurant published a recipe for a tomato-laced chowder in 1889.

New Englanders, staunchly loyal to their milky version, dubbed it “Manhattan Clam Chowder” — to them, tomato chowders were a heresy and associating anything with New York was pejorative. As late as 1939, a bill was introduced in Maine making it a statuary offense to put tomatoes in chowder. Elsewhere, the word “chowder” is used for a variety of soups, with ingredients ranging from salmon to corn. A chowder may be defined by its chunkiness, while a bisque is typically pureed.

—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn. 

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Shrimp and Corn Chowder

Corn, shrimp, country ham, whole milk and herbs from the garden come together quickly for this creamy soup.

Wild Rice Chowder with Greens

Wild Rice Chowder with Greens

We like kale in this soup because it’s hearty and chewy and stands up to the firm textured wild rice, but and kind of greens will do.

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Bay Scallop Chowder

A creamy chowder that showcases the mild flavor of scallops.

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Grilled Corn and Bacon Chowder

Grill some corn on the cob and make extra for this creamy corn chowder the next night.

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Corn Chowder

Corn and potatoes thicken and flavor this hearty chowder.

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Quick Creamy Corn Chowder

A new take on a classic recipe this recipe uses common items to create a creamy blend for a cold day.