Clam chowder is a delicious hearty stew containing clams and broth that infuses different flavors depending on the style of the local cuisine. Perhaps since I am from New England I have a unique perspective of this type of soup, but there are some very specific ingredients in New England style clam chowder and those who call the region home have very little tolerance for any deviation. The thick and hearty New England clam chowder often includes diced potatoes, pork, onions, celery, milk, butter, cream and a bay leaf served with saltine crackers or small hexagon sized crackers known as oyster crackers. Rebels occasional add other vegetables for color and flavor, like carrots and legumes but that must be done with a delicate touch.
The soup goes back hundreds of years in the New England area thanks to Native Americans. The seafood stew that was made with corn and beans often included the large, hard-shelled clam that roams the North Atlantic Ocean called quahogs (sounds like co-hogs). Tribes like the Mohegan’s, Pequot’s, Narragansett, Mi’kmaq, and Wampanoag would build contraptions in the rivers and bays to catch fish, quahogs, oysters, lobster, and mussels for their soup. Today middens, large ancient trash heaps found by shorelines and riverbeds, provide us with evidence of what the Natives ate, which was especially seafood in the Northeast. Clams and other mollusks were a staple part of their diet. In addition to using the clam meat for cooking, clamshells have been used for over 4000 years for making wampum beads. Wampum, though considered adornments or jewelry, were also traded like currency with the English settlers. The Native American’s may have created the soup, but they were not the group who named it. Around the early 18th century, French and British sailors, fisherman, and settlers in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England would enjoy a stew similar to what the Native American’s were eating. They would add what ever they caught that day, along with broth or water, and thick biscuit called ship tack into a chaudière. The word chaudière means a cauldron or pot or as a way of cooking using one of those vessels. Modern etymologists also credit the word ‘chowder’ to a 16th century English word for a fishmonger, called a Jowter. Those two words are the basis for the stew name.
Seafood Chowder quickly became a staple in New England. In 1732, New Englander Benjamin Lynde would document the first written reference to North American Chowder. In his diary he noted that he “dined on a fine chowdered cod”. The first written recipe of fish chowder comes from the Boston Evening Post, published on September 23, 1751. Chowder was clearly consumed before and during that time however just not captured in a cookbook. Historical recipes and cookbooks give you more than just instructions for a dish; they provide what food that was accessible and what flavors were in fashion. For example, Europeans believed that tomatoes were poisonous for hundreds of years and there may have been lingering concerns at the time about the vegetable. Which may give an indication on why tomatoes were not initially added to chowder and perhaps why the addition of the vegetable in a neighboring state created a bit of a controversy, but I will get to that later. Hannah Glasse, a British cookbook author, published a recipe for chowder in the 8th version of her popular book ‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’, “to make chouder, a sea dish”. The first American Cookbook ‘American Cookery’ by Amelia Simmons published her version of the chowder in her second edition of her book in 1800. Her suggestion was to serve the hearty stew along side a bowl of potatoes. Chowder had spread far and wide in America, as people moved west and south they brought their recipes with them but adapted the dish to what they could find. In the 1824 cookbook Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph used whatever firm fish she could find along with salt pork, onions and crackers. However the crackers were not the main thickening agent as she made a roux (flour and gravy) to the soup to make it very thick. Transcendentalist Lydia Maria Child would include a recipe in her 1833 version of the American Frugal Housewife, adding salt pork, fish, beer, lemon and a “a few clams as a pleasant addition”. You may remember Lydia as also the writer of the poem, turned Christmas song, ‘over the river and through the woods’. By this time, clams were becoming more common in chowder, especially in the Northeast, as was the addition of milk, cream and butter.
In 1792 an important ingredient in chowder had a bit of its own history. In the sleepy coastal town of Newburyport, Massachusetts proprietor John Pearson opened the first commercial bakery in America named Pearson and Sons. John’s shop started to produce what they called ‘pilot bread’ which was a more refined version of hardtack to add to chowder. Hardtack (also known as ship tack, ship cakes) was just like it sounds; hard biscuits made from flour and water that were often consumed on long voyages on ships due to the extended shelf life. Mariners would add hardtack to chowder as a thickener to create a heartier meal. In notes and diaries from the passengers of the Mayflower, hardtack was an important part of their diet during the long sail to the new world. Pearson pilot bread would become the precursor to what we add to our chowder today, oyster crackers (despite its name, there are no oysters in the crackers). His bakery would become so popular that it would eventually be renamed the National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco. Nabisco still produces Crown Pilot crackers.
Though New England Clam Chowder is known worldwide, other regions have created their distinct crowd pleasers. Delaware Clam Chowder consists of pre-fried cubed salt pork, salt water, potatoes, diced onions, quahogclams, butter, salt, and pepper. The North Carolina Outer Banks has a ‘Hatteras’ version that is a clear clam broth stew with bacon, potatoes, onions, clams and flour with lots and lots of white and black pepper. In the northeast corner of Florida, Minorcan Clam Chowder is a spicy, tomato based stew with a key ingredient, a Spanish datil pepper. The datil pepper is comparable to a habanero pepper and was brought to the region by the Minorcan (Spain) settlers in the 18th century. The smallest state in America, Rhode Island, has not one but two chowders; one that is tomato based and the other a clear broth. The one I grew up eating was the red, tomato based, chowder which is a nod to the Portuguese heritage in the state. Unlike other regional clam chowders that use thick chunks of tomatoes, the Rhode Island red version is a smooth tomato puree and clam broth with clams and no other vegetables added other than potatoes. This is a classic dish throughout the coastal state and one that I enjoyed all summer long especially when I went to my favorite amusement park, Rocky Point. We would all consume copious amounts of chowder and clam cakes (similar to fritters) before spending the rest of the day being tossed around on rides. The other version is a clear clam broth called Noank Clam Chowder.
I can go on for a while describing all the other regions like New Jersey, Long Island, San Francisco, Seattle, and Cabo, Mexico however the most competing chowder to New England is the Manhattan version. For those unfamiliar with the New England and New York rivalry, this may seem silly. However for those that live in the thick of it, these two regions fight over almost everything including sports teams, namely the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. We can’t help ourselves; it is almost like a birthright. So why would we be surprised that a war of chowders began after a recipe was published in a 1934 cookbook called Soups and Sauces by Virginia Elliot and Robert Jones. Tomato-based chowders had been made in the New York area since the 1800s, known as the Fulton Fish Market or as New York City clam chowders. The traditional milk base chowder was replaced by tomatoes and tomato paste making the soup thinner than its rival and would also include carrots, onions, celery and garlic and, of course, clams. It was not until Elliot and Jones book was published calling the soup Manhattan clam chowder. This sent New Englanders into frenzy even referring to it as a “notable heresy”. In the normally sensible state of Maine, the Manhattan versus New England Clam Chowder took an odd turn. In 1939, State Representative Cleveland Sleeper of Rockland, Maine introduced a bill outlawing tomatoes to be used in chowder in the state. This bill prohibited Manhattan clam chowder in Maine and guilty offenders would be sentenced with the impossible task of having to dig up a barrel of clams at high tide. Though the bill was argued, it never was approved. Sleeper couldn’t let this go, leading to the Great Clam Chowder War of 1939. Sleeper arranged for a New England chef to meet with a Philadelphia restaurant owner (Harry Tully) and his chef to have a clam chowder cook off. A group of distinguished judges were gathered including Maine Governor Lewis O.Barrows and creator of the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie, Ruth Wakefield. Just pointing out the obvious here… both of these judges are from New England, so it should not come as a surprise that the New England Clam Chowder was victorious. Leading to headlines like “Maine Chowder Wins Over Tomato-Type”. “Rep. Sleeper’s Campaign for Unpolluted Dish is Successful”, declared the Lewiston Sun Journal. Quoting Sleeper himself “ If a clam could vote, I would be elected President”. A year later, Eleanor Early continued to fuel the fire by mentioning the Manhattan clam chowder in her book ‘New England Sample’. She referred to the chowder as a "terrible pink mixture" and "is only a vegetable soup and not to be confused with New England Clam Chowder, nor spoken of in the same breathe. Tomatoes and clams," she wrote, "have no more affinity than ice cream and horseradish." Can’t we all just get along?
In my cookbook ‘A Thyme to Discover, Early American Recipes for the Modern Table’, I included my version of New England clam chowder. Even though the stew is hot and thick, New Englanders eat it throughout the year, especially in the summer. Each time I order a bowl, I sit there in anticipation wondering if it is going to be good, will it be thick enough, will they use a good balance of cream and milk, and how big will the potatoes be? I truly dislike when there are too many potatoes or the cuts of potato are too big in my chowder. One of the benefits of writing your own cookbook is you can make it exactly the way you want to eat the dish. My version has potatoes that are diced small, however I also used potatoes as a thickening agent. By blending some of the potatoes, it added an unexpected richness which allowed me to cut back on how much cream I used. Hope you enjoy the recipe as much as I do.