Culture  /  Origin Story

Chowder Once Had No Milk, No Potatoes—and No Clams

The earliest-known version of the dish was a winey, briny, bready casserole.

Scholars have long speculated that chowder didn’t originate in New England at all. But both the name and ingredients give clues about how it may have landed in the region and, eventually, in Boston. The etymology of the word is murky, but chowder could be derived from chaudière, a French word for “boiler.” In the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, food writer John F. Mariani notes how most scholars believe that Breton sailors who fished on the Canadian coast came up with chowder as a way to eat some of their catch. But, Mariani points out, other theories involve an origin in Cornwall, where in the local dialect jowder meant “fishmonger.”

Undeniably, though, chowder was the food of seafarers, lending some credence to the Breton sailor theory. It would have been possible, even easy, to make chowder onboard a ship. Most of the ingredients, such as hardtack, salt pork, and wine, were common supplies.

Wherever its origin, chowder was common enough to become a staple across the Eastern Seaboard by the early 1800s. By the time it began appearing in cookbooks, the recipe had started to standardize into what would be recognized as “chowder” today. In Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife, first published in 1829, the recipe still calls for fish, but there’s none of the wine that had soaked earlier versions.

Child’s recipe does share many similarities with the 1751 poem version of chowder. For example, she instructs the cook to start by frying salt pork in a large pot, but to remove it and leave behind the fat before starting to layer in the other ingredients: fish and crackers, as was traditional, but also potatoes. Instead of alcohol, a mixture of flour and water provided the liquid. No herbs are present. Instead, Child called for simply salt and pepper, along with a number of optional seasonings, including a sliced lemon, a cup of ketchup, a cup of beer, or even a handful of clams.

Clams only slowly became the preferred seafood for chowder. In the first half of the 19th century, fish chowder and clam chowder existed simultaneously, illustrated by, of all things, the 1851 book Moby-Dick.