Story and Photos by Zach Bauer
Growing up in coastal New England, seafood has always been a big deal. Clam chowder is no exception. It’s almost like medicine. We always keep at least one can on hand, in case of emergency. Until recently, I didn’t question it. Why would I? It’s delicious! But eventually I discovered Manhattan clam chowder, and my whole world view changed. I had to understand how clam chowder could evolve into so many different forms in so many different places.
Chowder has always been about friends, family, and the tradition of the sea. It’s existed in small fishing villages for about as long as fishing villages have existed, and it evolved somewhat independently in each of them.
Flash back to a coastal village in 1600s Brittany, France. Everyone would gather around the cauldron as the fishermen returned from the sea. They would start by browning up some salt pork, then layer on fresh fish and crumbled biscuit until it reached the upper lip of the cauldron. Finally, they would top it off with water and let it boil . It was a celebration of the bounty, and a way to bring the whole village closer together.
The word ‘chowder’ probably stems from the type of cauldron used to make the dish in these villages, called a chaudière at the time . But even if we can trace the word back to the shores of Brittany, by no means does that make chowder a French dish. The concept is global, it’s simply something that evolved independently everywhere that seafood was abundant.
Over the course of the following few centuries, the population in the New World grew and spread out. Fishing played a less important part of society, and those traditional chowder celebrations evolved into something more specific to each family. People started adding all sorts of different ingredients, like seafood, vegetables, cream, and alcohols, trying to elevate and personalize the dish . The traditional cauldron chowder was thick and pasty, meant to provide calories as densely as possible, so as cooking became less about sustenance and more about enjoyment, chowder needed some enhancement.
In New York City, for example, the large Italian and Portuguese populations turned to tomatoes to supplement their chowders, creating something a little bit closer to the more traditional zuppa di vongole or caldeirada. In fact, the word caldeirada likely comes from the very same cauldrons as the English word chowder .
In Maine and Massachusetts, milk or cream was added for richness. Rhode Islanders typically kept the clear broth, but often served cream and/or tomatoes on the side, in case they had visitors from out of town. North Carolina serves a clear chowder as well, but they add in a whole bunch of other vegetables. And in the middle of the country, where seafood is less available, corn chowder began to rise in prominence.
As recipes became easier to share and culinary ideas travelled, different regional chowders came into more direct competition. The tomato based Manhattan clam chowder and the creamy New England clam chowder are bitter rivals. In the 1950s, a state senator from Maine even tried to make it illegal to add tomatoes to a chowder .
Today, although chowder remains in the realm of comfort food, it is much less about providing as many calories from as few ingredients as possible. Now, its purpose is about highlighting the tradition of local seafare and the comforting community values that stemmed from it. Its elegance comes from its simplicity, and its ability to bring people together.
People have very strong feelings about their way of making clam chowder, as with many other traditional dishes. It becomes an important part of that family and that community. The argument is more about pride, and that’s the reason I hadn’t learned about Manhattan clam chowder until recently. New Englanders have cream based clam chowder and the Red Sox, while New Yorkers have tomato based clam chowder and the Yankees .
Now when I eat clam chowder, I’ll think about how its comforting effects come from its beginning as a food for bringing people together. It’s a dish that showcases the rich history of fishing in coastal New England, but more than that, it shows how personalized tradition can be. Anyone can tweak the recipe to feel more like a dish from their home. It’s a food that we can all relate to in our own unique way, and that alone makes clam chowder a dish worth celebrating.
After I started researching the history of clam chowder, I wondered how deep my own families ties were to the dish. I asked my mom about it, and she directed me to her mom, who gave me a recipe that she inherited from her own mother. My great grandmother would make this chowder for my grandmother and her siblings on their very own family vacations in Maine. That’s a tradition that I can’t wait to bring back this summer.
- 3-4 strips of bacon, sliced
- ⅓ c butter
- 2 diced onions
- 4-5 red potatoes, diced
- ⅓ c flour
- 3 c chicken broth
- 2 cans minced clams (6.5 oz each, with liquid)
- 3 c milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sauté bacon in soup pot. Add butter, onions, and potatoes.
- Cook for five minutes, then add flour. Stir until veggies are coated.
- Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer.
- Cook until potatoes are soft.
- Add clams and milk. Heat through but do not boil.
- Season with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.
Bibliography (not directly cited)