In the tower of Babel of the world's cuisines, one dish is universally understood: fish stew.
Every nation has its version: French bouillabaisse, Italian zuppa di pesce, Scottish cullen skink. It seems that cooks everywhere have a symbolic urge to return sea foods to their watery habitat -- or more appropriately, a broth flavored with herbs and vegetables or enriched with butter and cream.
There's one fish soup America can call uniquely its own: chowder. Born as a humble seaman's stew, this stalwart sustainer has, over the course of three centuries, been raised to the level of art. There are chowders made with fish, chowders made with clams, white chowders, red chowders, and even clear chowders. A century ago, the Shakers pioneered corn chowder, while today, progressive young chefs are turning out chowders made with mushrooms and even fiddlehead ferns.
Food historians are split into two schools of thought on the origins of chowder. The first attributes its invention to the Breton cod fishermen who plied the icy waters off Nova Scotia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Chowder, they maintain, is a corruption of "chaudiere," the French word for cauldron. According to Richard Hooker, author of the fascinating "Book of Chowder," taverns in Breton fishing villages would post signs saying, "Ici on fait la chaudiere" ("Here we make chowders"). The tavern would provide the cauldron, the fishermen the fish, and once the stew ** was ready, everyone got to partake. The use of ships biscuit in early chowderrecipes lends credence to this theory.
The other school of thought sees English origins for this Yankee standby. As early as the 16th century, the words "chowder," "chowter," and "jowder" were used to denote a fishmonger. In 1762, English novelist Tobias Smollett has one of his characters say, "My head sings and simmers like a pot of chowder."
The first published chowder recipe appeared in Hannah Glasse's 1747 "Art of Cookery" -- a book that was reprinted in numerous editions on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the elements of the modern chowder were present in Glasse's recipe, including the cod, salt pork, and onions. It contained no milk or cream, however, and it was baked under a crust, like a pie. Glasse suggested finishing her chowder with oysters, truffles, morels, or "a glass of hot madeira wine."
Hooker dates the first written reference to chowder in North America to 1732, when one Benjamin Lynde -- a New Englander, of course -- noted in his diary that he had "dined on a fine chowdered cod." By 1751, the dish was sufficiently popular for a major newspaper, the Boston Evening Post, to run a recipe for "chouder" -- the first on this side of the Atlantic. The recipe is equally remarkable for its literary form as for its culinary content.
Directions for making a Chouder
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.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time
This 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 Chowder for a thousand Men.
Last Bottle of Claret, with water eno' to smother 'em
You'l have a Mess which some call Ominium gather 'em.
The author made an error in the sequence of the ingredients: the salt pork should be added before the onions to keep the latter from burning. In its use of herbs and wine, however, the recipe anticipates the innovations of many 20th century chefs.
It wasn't until the 1820s, however, that chowder acquired two ingredients that most modern Americans consider essential: potatoes and tomatoes. In her 1829 cookbook "The Frugal Housewife," abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child listed a recipe for "Boston Fish Chowder."
The recipe called for "potatoes sliced as thin as a four-pence" and "a cup of tomato catchup [sic]." Made with water to cover the dry ingredients, Child's chowder was wetter than its predecessors, although it remained more of a stew than a soup. Child offered the option of a still wetter chowder, observing that "some people put in a cup of beer."
By the 1830s, chowder was firmly entrenched in New England's culinary landscape. "This favorite dish of the Yankees, I find, require[s] no little skill in the making," observed a Philadelphian visitor to Boston in 1838. In the mid-1800s, Boston Harbor and Narragansett Bay were lined with fish halls that specialized in clam and fish chowders. Melville wasn't far off when he had Moby Dick hero Ishmael describe Nantucket's Try Pots Inn as a place that served "Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fishbones coming through your clothes."
The lack of fresh seafood did not deter chowder-makers in the western parts of the nation. 19th century cookbooks abound with recipes for corn, chicken, and veal chowders, and even a chowder of parsnips. Bean chowder and corn chowder were classic Shaker dishes. Milk and cream began to appear in chowder in the 1830s, giving them a look and taste that would be familiar today.
Of the innumerable chowders of the 19th century, clam chowder has emerged as the favorite today. But the proper way to prepare it remains a matter of hot debate. Bay Staters favor white clam chowders, made with salt pork, cream, and potatoes. Rhode Islanders follow the practice of New Yorkers in their red chowders, adding tomatoes and omitting the milk. In small towns on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, you'll find a third type of clam chowder, "clear chowder," made with quahaugs, salt pork, onions, potatoes, and water.
For in the end, chowder isn't so much a recipe as a process. Ultimately, it's the freshness of the ingredients that should determine what goes into the chowder pot.