Chowder. Even the word sounds comforting, doesnt it? But this beloved dish is more than a mere staple. Wrap your hands around a warm mug of it and you hold history in a cup, a portrait of America as a young country.
Like most of us, chowder has roots that lie elsewhere. It is believed to have originated in France, hopscotching to Great Britain and then the Canadian coast before finally arriving here. But once on U.S. soil, it became undeniably ours. Each variation, every tweak after that point, provides a bit of our national narrative.
First written about in 1732, North American chowder originally meant one thing: fish. To survive months at sea, sailors would break hard biscuits into a crude seafood broth. Later, in taverns and homes, a more substantial chowder buffered New Englanders against capricious spring winds and gun-metal-gray winters. When boats sailed into port, their holds filled with cod and other fish from Georges Bank off the coast of Cape Cod, chaudieres -- large soup kettles from which we took the word chowder -- were at the ready. A humble, satisfying meal was made by layering sweet onions, salt pork, potatoes, flaky white fish, and a handful of herbs, and then letting the mixture burble slowly to create a fragrant, seductive soup.
New England clam chowder, considered by many to be the quintessential version, began appearing about a century later. Plentiful quahogs, cherrystones, and steamers trumped fish as the favored ingredient. Because it no longer relied on returning fishing boats, chowder could be made on a whim. Milk, cream, and butter were familiar additions, and bacon, with its breath of smoke, all but completely replaced salt pork, adding a touch of refinement. During this time, chowder stopped serving solely as subsistence and took on a more dignified role.
No worthy narrative is complete without conflict. In the saga of chowder, it came in the form of the tomato, which started creeping into recipes in the mid-1800s. This newfangled red chowder created in New England by Portuguese immigrants caused staid Brahmin sensibilities to bristle as it became increasingly popular at swank eateries in Manhattan and among the hoi polloi of Coney Island. Battle lines were drawn, sides were taken, and the debate, which still burns white-hot, was launched. Few restaurants north of Rhode Island would deign to serve what came to be known as Manhattan clam chowder.
During the same period, chowder was so universally adored that the word picnic became synonymous with chowder parties -- great leisurely affairs that brought townspeople to the beach. Pots filled with the day's fresh catch, presided over by a chowder master, simmered into the evening, helping to strengthen community ties while satiating appetites.
Not long after, the concept of chowder drifted beyond the beach, and, for the first time, the dish was bereft of anything from the sea. Spilling over with ingredients such as chicken, veal, corn, and parsnips, these farmhouse renditions earned their place among the canon of great chowders. By the early 1900s, chowder, now a stalwart in cookbooks, took perhaps its most American turn: It migrated to different parts of the country via pioneers, taking on the flavor and character of each region and accommodating local ingredients easier than most other native or adopted dishes -- without losing a sense of its collective identity.