Chowda!: Three Centuries of Recipes Reveal the Rise of New England’s Finest Culinary Export

Say chow­der out loud: chow­der. The word sounds like food. Not an appe­tiz­er either. An entree in a small crock topped with bro­ken crack­ers.

As with so many things relat­ed to food, chow­der is a sto­ried dish. It hails from New Eng­land and north­east­ern Cana­da, its first writ­ten ref­er­ence dat­ing back to 1732 when a jour­nal­ist recalls din­ing on a “fine chow­dered cod.”

There are as many types of chow­der as there are soup, though a true chow­der is more like a stew than a soup. Some purists would rather eat slugs than a chow­der with toma­toes in it or whose name ref­er­ences New York. But all chow­ders must fea­ture the fol­low­ing: broth, salt pork, bis­cuit and seafood.

Aside from that, all bets are off. Chow down.

Of course a region­al dish with this long a his­to­ry and which leaves this much room for inter­pre­ta­tion deserves a his­to­ry of its own, and so the good peo­ple at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Amherst cre­at­ed the New Eng­land Chow­der Com­pendi­um, a col­lec­tion of recipes and ephemera explor­ing how chow­der rose to become a sta­ple of New Eng­land cook­ery.

Culled from cook­books held by the university’s Beat­rice McIn­tosh Cook­ery Col­lec­tion, the com­pendi­um chron­i­cles chow­der recipes from the 1700s to the 1970s, through lean times and fat, through recipes heavy with cream and with­out.

And so, as read­ers click through fea­tured chow­der recipes from the 1920s on through to the 1940s, they’re sure to notice the ways ingre­di­ents vary. Use evap­o­rat­ed milk and a lit­tle water, if cream is not avail­able. House­wives were wise in the 1940s to be thrifty while mak­ing fresh stock from knuck­les: Save that fat that rose to the top and sell it to your meat deal­er.

Chow­der may be one of the poster food for peo­ple who are mak­ing do. Don’t have fresh seafood? Canned tuna will do. Lima beans soaked overnight can sub­sti­tute for clams.

As with most hand­writ­ten recipes, the hand­writ­ing and illus­tra­tions are part of the fun. One rad­i­cal sug­gests adding a dash of papri­ka. This recipe, for the Kingston Yacht Club, may have fed the entire mem­ber­ship (three gal­lons of clams?!)

The archivists include a nice primer, trac­ing the devel­op­ment of chow­der (the word comes from French for “caul­dron”).

One recipe that doesn’t sound so good: diet chow­der from the 1970s.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Read more of her work at and at

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  • While I don’t wish to be gra­tu­itous­ly pedan­tic, I think your asser­tion that “all chow­ders must fea­ture the fol­low­ing: broth, salt pork, bis­cuit and seafood” can only be con­sid­ered cor­rect if the point that one is try­ing to make is that one prefers being gra­tu­itous­ly author­i­tar­i­an. Wik­tionary, for exam­ple, defines chow­der as “(1) A thick, creamy soup or stew and (2) a stew, par­tic­u­lar­ly fish or seafood, not nec­es­sar­i­ly thick­ened”, while Wikipedia argues that chow­der is “a seafood or veg­etable stew (or thick­ened soup), often served with milk or cream and most­ly eat­en with saltine crack­ers”, men­tion­ing corn chow­der and pota­to chow­der (a favourite of mine) as two exam­ples that do not con­form to your pro­posed nec­es­sary and suf­fi­cient require­ments. Thus I should like to counter-pro­pose that in prac­tice chow­der is in fact any food­stuff which gen­er­al­ly evokes in the eater there­of the feel­ing or emo­tion that “this tastes like some kind of chow­der”, which giv­en the lack of any sort of for­mal­ly author­i­ta­tive Eng­lish def­i­n­i­tion I would argue comes clos­er to a true and cor­rect char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the seman­tics of chow­der. Oth­er than that, thanks for the links. I love chow­ders, espe­cial­ly when more than ¼ of the com­po­si­tion there­of con­sists of but­ter-fat ☺

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