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What Is Clam Chowder?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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A chowder is a rich, thick soup. The name chowder comes from the French word chaudière, the name for a cauldron in which fisherman made stews, or from jowter, the Old English word for a fish peddler. Unlike other rich, thick soup, which may be pureed prior to serving, chowders characteristically are served with their chunky ingredients intact. Historically, those ingredients included salt pork and ship’s biscuits. Types of chowder enjoyed today include corn chowder, and a wide variety of chowders with ingredients from oceans and rivers, including fish chowder, lobster chowder, gator chowder, mussel chowder, crab chowder, shrimp chowder, salmon chowder, and clam chowder.

From their invention, chowders have been a type of soup that is often made with whatever ingredients are on hand, and in the 18th century, chowders were made with whatever fish happened to be available. The standard technique was to layer the ingredients. In 1832, the first written recipe that specifically mentioned the inclusion of clams in chowder was recorded by Lydia Maria Child, remembered as an abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, journalist, and author of the Thanksgiving poem, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” By the 1850s, the use of clams in chowder had become more standard, and several editions into Fannie Farmer’s updates of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, there were distinct recipes for New England or New England-style or Maine-style Clam Chowder, Manhattan or Manhattan-Style Clam Chowder, and Rhode Island Clam Chowder.

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New England Clam Chowder, sometimes called Boston Clam Chowder, is prepared with a milk or cream base. With the use of a dairy base, clams, potatoes, and onions, the soup is predominantly white. Herman Melville has a mouth-watering description of New England Clam Chowder, noted to be Queequeg’s favorite food, in Chapter 15 of Moby Dick. Manhattan Clam Chowder, by way of contrast is strikingly red, due to the tomato base. Rhode Island Clam Chowder is made with a clear broth or with a bit of tomato, but not as much as is used in the Manhattan-style dish. Recipes are also available for a Santa Fe version — which features spicy sausage instead of salt pork and chili peppers — and combinations, such as corn and clam chowder.

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