THE CHOWDER WARS
A chowder is a seafood or vegetable soup especially popular in New England and Atlantic Canada. To most Americans, a chowder is made with clams, either New England-style with a cream base or Manhattan-style with tomatoes. Typically eaten with saltines, chowders traditionally are thickened either with crumbled crackers (in older times this would have been ship biscuit) or flour. In Maine, where chowda is a staple, it is sometimes so thick that a spoon, plunged vertically into it, stands upright.
There are several theories about the origins of the word chowder. Some propose that it derives from the Latin calderia, which originally meant a place for warming things and later came to mean a cooking pot. (Calderia also is the source of the word cauldron). There are early references to the word chowder both from Brittany in northwestern France and from Cornwall in Southwestern England, two regions located directly across the English Channel from each other.
In France, a chaudiere is a large iron pot of the type brought to the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland by Breton fishermen, who would each throw parts of the daily catch into the pot as a contribution to the communal evening meal (a custom that they also brought with them from France). Another possible French source is the dish chaudree, or chauderee, a thick fish soup from the coastal regions of Charente-Maritime and Vendee. But there also are claims for the old English word jowter, a fish peddler.
According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, when the chaudiere arrived in Canada it was met by Micmac Indians, who were very fond of clams (Clams and oysters were consumed in such quantities by Native Americans that, at favorite gathering places, shells were piled in mounds up to 10 feet high.) The natives cooked clams by adding hot stones to water held in a hollowed tree trunk. Davidson suggests that a marriage of European technology, the chaudiere, and American foodstuffs, clams, gave birth to the first clam chowder, although it may have taken a while for Europeans to acquire a taste for it. Records indicate that in the 1620s the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they are “the meanest of God’s blessings.”
By the middle of the 19th century, chowder was a mainstay in the Northeast, and clams had become an accepted ingredient because they were easily obtained (you had only to dig along the shore). As the country expanded, eventually reaching the Pacific coast, fishermen followed, bringing recipes and traditions with them. A familiar story is told in San Francisco, where the fish soup cioppino supposedly gets its name from local Italian and Portuguese fishermen who “chipped in” delicacies saved from their daily catch to make a communal evening stew.
Some claim that red chowder originated with Portuguese fishermen in Rhode Island, not New York. Others say that, in the mid 1800s, the large Italian population in New York started using tomatoes in their chowder, thinning it out and turning it red. Being Italian, they also added some garlic and a little peperoncino. Although it reportedly was served at Delmonicos and other high end New York restaurants, James Beard later labeled the chowder a “rather horrendous soup (that) resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.”
Whence the name Manhattan? Apparently New Englanders provided the title, which they considered to be highly pejorative and insulting. The chili wars in the American west are rivaled by the chowder wars in the east. If you think baseball competition between the Yankees and the Red Sox is extreme, consider this: in February of 1939, an assemblyman named Seeder introduced a bill in the Maine legislature making it illegal to put tomatoes in chowder. In New England, chowder is expected to be thick and creamy, and tomatoes are heresy.
The first chowders were made by layering ingredients, first bacon or salt pork, then onions, potatoes, other vegetables, herbs, and fish or clams. The layers were repeated, water or broth was added, and the pot was covered and simmered over low heat until cooking was complete (see the recipe that follows for Bonac clam chowder from the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society Cookbook, published in l898).
In New England, quahog (pronounced ko-hog) clams, the largest available size (some weigh half a pound or more) are sometimes called chowder clams. They also are called mercenaria, from the days when the Indians used the shells as wampum. Their large size makes them cheap and easy to process for chowder or clam pies, but not useful for much else. Some cooks, though, advise that smaller specimens, like cherrystones or littlenecks, result in a more tender chowder texture. Cherrystones (usually 4 to 7 to a pound) are typically used for stuffing and baking, and you’re likely to encounter a littleneck, smaller still, at a raw bar or atop a pizza. Some of the recipes that follow call for chopped fresh clams (available shucked from your fishmonger) and bottled clam juice and others give instructions for working from scratch. Unless there is absolutely no fresh alternative, avoid canned minced clams.