In New England, chowder is a beloved dish as rich in tradition as it is in flavor, but what exactly that flavor should be remains open to interpretation.
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It’s actually no surprise that we can’t agree, since the very philosophy of what makes chowder chowder is subject to debate. This stew-like dish has been around for centuries, so its origins are understandably murky. While the name is thought to derive from the French chaudière, referring not only to the “cauldron” but the ingredients within, the earliest published recipe comes from the September 23, 1751, edition of the Boston Evening Post. A layered “chouder” of onion, potatoes, salt pork, and fish (milk came later) was seasoned with salt, pepper, and herbs such as thyme, and served with hard crackers or “Biscuit.” Later, flour or cracker crumbs were added as a thickener.
As time passed, recipes became even more diverse, with enough variation to have us scratching our heads. Clam chowder is often considered the perennial classic, but should the base include bacon or salt pork? Or none at all? Fish or seafood chowder are also popular, allowing the chef to make use of whatever fish is on sale, or toss in a handful of shrimp or scallops, but should it be thickened with flour or crumbled crackers? Should there be milk or cream? Corn, lobster, even chicken …we just can’t stop finding ways to get our fix.
And then there are the regional recipes that go beyond “to flour or not to flour.” In parts of Rhode Island, the savory clear-broth variety omits the dairy altogether, and if that’s not enough to have some Yankees seeing red, this next one often literally does. With tomatoes added to the broth instead of dairy, the treat known as “Manhattan Clam Chowder” is a familiar sight in parts of southern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Chowder was never meant to be fancy, but it does have a way of tugging at the heartstrings of our collective Yankee stomachs that has made it a classic at both the finest restaurants and the simplest home kitchens. So whether you like it creamy and full of clams, light with plenty of fish, or brimming with fresh, sweet corn, we say any bowl of chowder that honors tradition while honoring local flavors is chowder enough for us.