What the heck is chowder?

“Chowder” is a bona fide American word and one of the oldest with attestations as far back as the 18th century. It’s apparently from the French word chaudiere, “a pot” and related to the word cauldron. The pronunciation is pretty close to what the St. Louis French pronunciation would be and I suspect that the Cajuns in Louisiana would pronounce it that way, too. Or pretty near.

The best chowder I’ve ever had bar none was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was visiting my sister (her husband, a Canadian, was doing his internship there) and walking around downtown Halifax. It was lunch time; I was hungry. I followed one of the tried-and-true methods for finding a good restaurant: I closed my eyes and sniffed. My nose led me to a little hole-in-the-wall dive—just a counter and a couple of small tables. I bought a bowl of the fish chowder (I suspect it had some lobster in it, too). There are simply no words to tell you how wonderful it was.

I’ve seen dozens (maybe even hundreds) of chowder recipes over the years with everything from the tomato-based Manhattan to the New England. Chowders with seafood. Chowders with none. I’ve even run into a recipe for something called “Pacific Chowder” (canned tuna dumped into canned cream of mushroom soup). The best definition of chowder I’ve been able to come up with is that a genuine chowder should have bacon or salt pork (although I’ve seen butter substituted), it should have milk in it (that would leave out Manhattan-style), and it should be thickened with flour.

If you’re looking for a Manhattan-style clam chowder, try my Cioppino and substitute clams for any other seafood. My recipe for Corn Chowder is here. Around Thanksgiving I’ll post a recipe for turkey-mushroom chowder—a great recipe for leftover turkey (especially if, as I do, you smoke your turkey)..

The oldest recipe for chowder I’ve got in my collection is this 19th century recipe for Shaker Fish Chowder.

Shaker Fish Chowder

½ lb. salt pork, cut fine
2 onions, minced
4 lb. fresh fish, filleted and cut into squares
2 cups raw potatoes, sliced fine
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. flour
1 pint scalded milk
8 hard crackers (water biscuits)

  1. Put the pork in a skillet and fry slowly for 12 minutes.
  2. Add the onions and fry to a very light yellow.
  3. Place a layer of fish and a layer of potatoes over the onions.
  4. Dredge slightly with salt, pepper, and flower.
  5. Repeat until the fish is used up.
  6. Cover with boiling water and cook for 15 minutes.
  7. Add the scalded milk and split crackers and cook 30 minutes.

Don’t be afraid of the salt pork—it has a lovely, delicate flavor.

Here’s the clam chowder I made for dinner for my wife and me last night.

Clam Chowder

Serves 2 (or 4 small “before”-type servings)

2 strips bacon, cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
6.5 oz. canned clams
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup clam juice
1 cup scalded milk
½ tsp. marjoram
Salt & pepper

  1. Saute the bacon slowly in a medium saucepan until the fat is rendered out, roughly ten minutes.
  2. Add the butter and onions and saute until the onions are transparent.
  3. Add the flour and cook for approximately 3 minutes.
  4. Mix in the clam juice and scalded milk.
  5. Stir in the potatoes and clams.
  6. Season with marjoram, salt, and pepper.
  7. Simmer slowly for roughly twenty minutes until the potatoes are completely cooked. Stir occasionall to prevent sticking.
  8. Adjust the seasoning and serve.

I’ve added these recipes to my master list of recipes.

3 comments… add one
  • Craig Link

    Your clam chowder looks like it might be good. How many (much) clams should do you put in it?

  • Well, silly me. Somehow in transcribing my recipe I omitted the clams! I’ve added them now.

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