The Remarkable Journey of Chowder Without Milk, Potatoes, and Clams


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Iconic recipes have to come from somewhere. Welcome to First Draft Foods, where this week we delve into the legends and controversies behind the world’s favorite dishes. Previously, we learned about the origins of red velvet cake.

Clam chowder stands alone. Soupier than an average stew, chunkier than an average soup, it bubbles away at dockside restaurants and behind buffet counters. In the United States, it’s one of the few foods that’s both a cafeteria staple and a special-occasion meal.

Chowders don’t necessarily require clams—other types of seafood or even vegetables can be the soup’s centerpiece, and regional variants abound. But the bone-white, clam-filled version is by far the most popular. The earliest-known recipe for chowder, though, produced a dish that looked and tasted nothing like its modern counterpart. No milk. No potatoes. Even clams didn’t make it into the mix. Instead, the earliest known chowder was a winey, briny, bready casserole.

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 crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme;
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d 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 Same 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.