New England Chowder: The King of Soups

From whaling captains to Anthony Bourdain, find out why this dish is a year-round staple in New England.

Courtesy Turner

I just had a bowl of steaming New England clam chowder, and it came with visions of dancing seagulls and clamshells.

For a minute, I was transported back to the sticky New England summers of my childhood.

The chowder was made the way it should be: with milk and cream and no tomatoes. When I was a kid, chowder was always on the menu and there were always takers no matter how hot it got. Decades later, it hasn’t changed.

“You would think you’d see a decline in sales when it’s 90 degrees in the middle of summer, but people are coming here and ordering it,” says Kyle McClelland, a Cape Cod native and the executive chef at Boston restaurant Saltie Girl, which is where I recently had my out-of-body chowder moment. His version is an ode to the classic, complete with house-cured bacon, but with several modern twists, including briny vegetable salsify and clams cooked to order.

Seafood dishes are only a portion of what’s considered New England cuisine; after all, you’ve got a whole range of foods grown and hunted on land. But seafood is what makes this regional cuisine truly special, and, in particular, New Englanders tend to be as passionate about their chowder as they are about their sports teams.

Chowder reminds me of road trips along the coastline, and bright sunny days, brimming with possibility. Unlike the lobster roll (which has been co-opted by fancy people south and west of here and rendered ridiculously expensive), New England clam chowder remains brazenly caloric and thoroughly ungentrified—teeming with pork and assorted carbs abob in a bowl of milk or cream (or both). To this day, it owes its popularity to the region’s unique weather patterns and the robust spirit of the populations with the grit to thrive in it.

Few chefs describe this more eloquently than Howard Mitcham in the legendary  Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, the 1975 cult classic that is being re-issued next week. More than just a list of recipes, it’s part culinary history and part memoir. Mitcham’s deep affection for Provincetown and the people who nourished its inhabitants, draws us in and makes chowder lovers of us all.

The latest edition of the book is true to the original, right down to the whimsical drawings in the margin by Mitcham’s hand. What’s new is also bittersweet: an introduction written just last fall by the late great Anthony Bourdain, who was handed this book at his first job in P-town as a cook. He calls it “one of the most influential in my life,” which perhaps partly explains why he declares in his 2016 Appetites: A Cookbook that “there is only one chowder”—New England clam chowder, which he features in his book—and “all else is soup.”

“Provincetown,” as Mitcham puts it, is “the birthplace of the commercial fishing industry of the U.S.A. It’s the seafood capital of the universe…the fishiest town in the world.” Historically, a natural abundance and variety of sea creatures have lived off the shores of the Cape, which connect New Englanders to the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the world. As spring and summer near, the sun heats the waters, plankton flourish, herring come in to spawn, pogey and other baitfish move in as well, and larger species (tuna, swordfish, striped bass) follow them, explains Jasper White, chef and founder of Summer Shack, the acclaimed seafood concept with three locations in New England. Clams, too, feed on the plankton and grow faster this time of year; lobsters wake up from their quasi-hibernation.

Even before the advent of long-voyage ships and airplanes, clams enticed locals and visitors alike. As Mitcham tells it, “In the summer, thousands of mainland Indians would migrate to Cape Cod to bask in the sunshine and feed on the shellfish.” And, there, they taught America’s first immigrants—the Pilgrims—how to dig for clams. Thank goodness they did otherwise, says Mitcham, “they would all probably have starved to death that first hard winter.”

Did I say clams? I meant “quahogs.” Quahogs refer to a variety of Atlantic hard-shells, such as the cherrystone and littleneck, but it also refers to a specific large-size hard-shell that’s also known as the chowder clam, which is, you guessed it, traditionally used to make chowder. (It’s, of course, also the inspiration for the name of the fictional Rhode Island town that is the setting for the raunchy cartoon Family Guy.) These bivalves live just inches beneath the sand and are easily detected with bare toes as you walk along the shore.

The etymology of chowder is confusing, to say the least. It’s thought to be derived from a French verb chaudier, meaning to cook in a cauldron, over a fire, which was the only way to cook in pre-colonial times; but then there’s also the 18th- century English term jowter, which meant fishmonger. Both are unconvincing as an explanation to chowder’s origins, if you ask Robert Cox, head of special collections at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-author of A History of Chowder. “My opinion—though not based on the strongest evidence, I’ll admit—is that chowder is a North Atlantic meal, devised more or less at sea, but taking a strong hold on the region from New England through Nova Scotia. It may have ‘grown up’ in Plymouth,” he says in reference to a 2014 New York Times article by Sam Sifton, “but I think that’s a bit too specific for my taste: The desire to pin it down to one location really loses sight of its broad origins.”

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As Cox sees it, in its very earliest days chowder was largely a food “cooked by men, for men”—specifically sailors, who utilized what little they had at their disposal. Drinkable water was precious, so they added only a little to their food. Mixed with “hardtack”—a crude but practically indestructible biscuit, made of water, flour, and sometimes salt—it yielded a thick, filling texture that satiated the appetites of a whole crew.

Other ingredients were just as practical as fish and quahogs; pork (because it’s a staple food, says White, and also because, before the early 20th century, seafood was considered an inferior protein); onions (a no-brainer, given that they were brought aboard the Mayflower, and grew and stored with ease). Stale crackers thickened the texture and were hard to choke down on their own. When potatoes were finally deemed fit for human consumption (it was relegated for pigs at first), they made their way into chowder, too.

As the dish transformed from a staff meal for seafaring men to a righteous seafood dish for families in fishing villages, its contents also shifted. Pork remained part of the recipe but now could be fried up in a pan, thanks to the invention of the stove, thus adding a satisfying crackle and a fatty note. Dairy, which would, of course, never keep on a ship, was eventually added to the dish sometime in the first half of the 19th century. (Why? The reason is as opaque as Howard Johnson’s signature rendition of New England clam chowder, though it stands to reason that as cream, butter, and milk became available, people simply tried to experiment with it.)

Meanwhile, a Portuguese community started to grow in New England. According to Mitcham, whaling captains headed to the Azores to hire crewmen because the Portuguese were “the only ones with guts enough to stand it.” The lucky ones who survived these long arduous voyages would set down roots in New England and, in doing so, brought with them “their rambunctious cookery and husky, euphoric cuisine”—components of which included olive oil, garlic, and rudimentary spices imported from Asia, such as black pepper. Generations later, it was, in fact, a woman named Lydia, from a Portuguese fishing family, who provided Bourdain the chowder recipe featured in his cookbook.

Ingredients aside, New England chowder is more than a sum of its parts. From the beginning, it has been a food cooked in a big pot, a food that brings people together, whether the setting is a 19th-century fishing village or a modern-day clambake.

Ingredients aside, New England chowder is more than a sum of its parts. From the beginning, it has been a food cooked in a big pot, a food that brings people together, whether the setting is a 19th-century fishing village or a modern-day clambake. “It’s a social dish,” says Cox. “A center of a celebration.” The ingredients are humble, but there’s pride in the making and serving of it.

Over the years, new iterations have cropped up, from the tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder to the clear-broth Rhode Island iteration. Some consider them heresy. Others, like Mitcham, are accepting, but unimpressed; he chose to feature an uncomplicated 100-plus-year-old recipe in his book, saying, “It’s okay to go dashing off on experimental tangents, but sooner or later you’ll realize that the hidebound method of the old-time Cape Codders is the best.”

White, who has authored four seafood cookbooks, including 50 Chowders, takes a more open-minded approach. “New England cuisine isn’t stagnant; it’s affected by every wave of migration, many newly available ingredients, and every new technology,” he says. “All cuisines evolve, everyone contributes and it keeps it fun.” At Summer Shack, White likes to change things up, sometimes even serving Latino- and Caribbean-style chowders on his menu.

As for me? I’ll stick with the cream variety—and savor the knowledge that it has spawned so many other recipes.