The New England Chowder Compendium

"Can" is not a synonym for "soup." With no disrespect to this country's soup manufacturers, many of whose products are prepared with care and skill, the best soup is made at home. - James Beard

Like all basically honest things, [chowders] can be perverted and desecrated by human stupidity-cupidity, but it is hard to think of making a bad one on purpose. - M.F.K. Fisher

For many from the six states of New England chowder seems essential to any idea of a regional cuisine. New Englanders learn quickly to dismiss the chowder where tomato ruins its gorgeous broth, where references to New York tarnish its name. They know not to try it; the smallest taste could be treason to family, friends, and a whole lot more. However, few know how such distinctions came about in the first place, what processes were involved that resulted in one person's disgust of another's beloved creation, and why, to this day, do we stand by such convictions?

Chowders can be thick or thin, cream-based or water-based, can contain fish or clams or corn; no tomatoes, tomatoes; no potatoes, potatoes; there are countless ways of preparation. Broad place-based terms have come to define the way we talk about chowder: New England, Rhode Island, Maine, Manhattan. Yet within each of these categories reside more nuanced and subtle traditions of preparation that continue to this day. While the rivalries that exist where one chowder claims to be superior to another may appear timeless, they are more recent in development than one may imagine. In tracing the dish back to its genesis, the regional variations become obscured, and different ways of preparing and talking about food are revealed.

Aligning chowders of all kinds chronologically as we have done in this compendium provides a better picture of that strange and exciting transformation. The word chowder is believed to come from chaudière, French for cauldron. While the exact origins of chowder remain uncertain, some food historians claim the dish bears similarities to one long-prepared in France around the coastal area of Brittany. Other writers have suggested that chowder originated in the fishing communities of Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. No matter which story one subscribes to, chowder has its sea legs. For centuries it has been traveling across the Atlantic, bouncing off continents; a meal during a month's journey or an afternoon tie-up. The early methods of preparation and the defining ingredients of broth, salt pork, biscuit, and seafood, reflect both the limitations and the provisions of mariner life. The first reference to chowder in America is a journal entry by Benjamin Lynde in 1732 who "dined on a fine chowdered cod," yet it would take almost another 20 years for a recipe to appear in print. It is quite poetic: from the September 23rd issue of The Boston Evening Post in 1751, a line reads: "Thus your foundation laid, you will be able to raise a chouder, high as Tower of Babel."

The New England Chowder Compendium began as a way to showcase and document chowder recipes, but it has become much more. Advertisements, menus, photographs, and literary references are all included. We will continue to add new media that explores the complexities of chowder in history and in hunger. Submissions from chefs both regionally and nationally, from food writers, business owners, and, hopefully, from you, will help us know where chowder is going.

In using the compendium one can find how chowder has been transformed from its layered preparation centuries ago to its current conception. Notice the nuances of an early Nantucket chowder with its lack of potatoes, or read Melville's chapter from Moby Dick devoted entirely to the subject. Explore that perhaps unfortunate trend from entree to appetizer, or try to locate the recipe that fed the most people, or where dairy or clams were first used as ingredients.

No matter how thick this compendium gets, however, or how many perspectives are gained in its story, we must also keep in mind the recipes that will never appear; we must question the sources that define our cuisine. Who were the authors of these recipes, these advertisements, these other means of expression and who will never be?

I hope you enjoy exploring and comparing all things chowder, and, if time allowing please cook as many as possible-- save that diet chowder from 1977.