New Hampshire Glossary: Chowder

Chowder (or chowda, as the locals pronounce it) is New England comfort food. This hearty soup is made with salt pork, using cream or milk as the base.  Historically it was thickened with crushed crackers or flour. (Note that there is an oddity called “Manhattan clam chowder,” made with tomato juice, that non-New Englanders delusionally  accept as being related to our version).

Nauti Talk (a now defunct nautical web site) stated that chowder “was introduced to the North American coast by the Breton fishermen who worked in the waters of the Eastern Seaboard, and that the word “comes from the French word chaudière meaning a cauldron.”

Typical New Hampshire and New England chowders may include onion, corn, clams, mussels, shrimp, potato, and other fish (such as cod).  Strangely I’ve never seen oyster chowder on the menu in New Hampshire, where it is, instead, called oyster “stew.”

Some say it’s not a great chowder unless you use heavy cream.  Others like butter or flour roux rather than clam liquid. Still others prefer garlic to onion. There are chowder connoisseurs who insist that it has to be prepared a specific way.

Let us take a culinary step back in time to the Boston Evening-Post, and the New-York Evening Post, in September of 1751, for “Directions for making a Chouder.”

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning;
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crosways very nice,
Then season well with Pepper Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next, which must be soaked some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel:
For by repeating o’re the fame again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men.
Last Bottle of Claret, with Water eno’ to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather’em

The Boston Intelligencer of August 5, 1820, announced a “Recipe to Make a First Rate Chowder.”
–Take the bodies of two Haddocks, without the heads, and one Cod’s head and shoulders–clean them and cut them into, not very small pieces. Fry slices of salted pork, until the fat be extracted–then fry about a dozen onions sliced, in the pork fat until they become quite brown.
–Season the pieces of fish with pepper and a little salt, and sprinkle a little flower [sic flour] over each. Lay them in a layer at the bottom of the pot; then put in a layer of onions and pork, and so on alternately until you have disposed of all your ingredients. About a gill of vinegar, and some cayenne pepper, should be added and then pour in water sufficient to cover the fish exactly. After the pot has boiled over a quick fire about fifteen minutes, soften some hard buiscuit [sic] in cold water, and distribute them in pieces among the fish–and at the same time pour in about a pint of either red or white wine.  After this, take off the pot and let the chowder simmer for three quarters of an hour longer–when it will be ready to serve up.  If there whould [sic] appear to be too little liquor (which is not likely to happen, add a little water–and be careful not to salt it too high at first, for the seasoning can be made to your liking just before the dish is quite done. N.B. Some persons prefer bottled cider to wine and approve of a lemon sliced as a garnish.

In the early 1800s when the “Feast of Squantum” was celebrated (by everyone EXCEPT the Native Peoples) at Neponset, the “fat things of the sea and sand,” including chowder, was served. Several New Hampshire towns, including Portsmouth, still hold annual chowder festivals.


*Additional Reading*

Great Grandpa Scott’s Clam Chowder

Prescott Park Arts Festivals

Chowder recipes and photographs on Pinterest

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