You’ve heard of MIT eggheads and Harvard think tanks creating the most wonderful technologies the world has ever seen – but more often than not – not able to spread the new invention until another country (like Japan or Chile) actually finds a practical way to profitably propagate the new discovery.
That same situation occurred with chowder, another of our unique port foods. But instead of eggheads, you can substitute ocean-spanning, rather rough-looking, seamen. It all started with these seafarers, mostly from the North Atlantic, that decided to cheer themselves up with chowder beer. A liquor made by boiling black spruce in water and mixing molasses with the decoction, in other words, spruce beer. The main reason for the drink on long voyages was to prevent scurvy since apparently the cheep beer helped to heel many a digestive illness as well as provide an adequate supply of vitamin C. Since this rather intoxicating brew made one a bit topsy-turvy; it was not highly recommended to be going about the ship while imbibing; the sailors would lower small boats and take their brew to a stable beach and have at it!* Of course, just like manly men would do today watching a football game, you’ve got to have an ample food spread like buffalo wings and salsa (of course); the seamen, in turn, would take anything they could find about the ship, take along a large pot and cook up a fine meal for everyone to enjoy.
Thus began the start of ‘chowder’. Chowder came from the Latin word calderia, which originally meant a place for warming things, and eventually began to be used to describe a cooking pot. The word calderia also gave us cauldron, and in French it became chaudiere. It is also thought to come from the old English word jowter (a fish peddler). The practice of making this ‘fish stew’ has been traced back to the fishing villages along Brittany in France and in the Cornwall region in Southwestern England. In those regions, when ships returned from the sea, each village had a large chaudiere waiting for a portion of each man’s catch, to be served later as part of the community’s welcoming celebration.
Thus as the English and the French colonized the New World, they brought along this idea of the communal chowder.
The seamen had to use what was available to them – beer, rum, salted pork, sea biscuits, simple spices and vegetables and of course, fish. This fish chowder would not be recognizable to anyone today. First, they would place onions across the bottom of the pot, then they would lay fish down, then sea biscuits, then spices and vegetables, then salted pork and then would repeat this process until the whole thing reached close to the top of the cauldron. They would then add rum, or the chowder beer to the mix. Then they would put it over an open fire and let it cook for a very long time. They then could reach in and have a rich brew and often, what was left, was brought back to the ship to supplement the rations.
As these chowder pots were brought back into port, often the sailors would expect to enjoy them as they stayed in boarding houses and soon local taverns would serve them their familiar fare.
As then, as done now; the idea of chowder was spread by the publishing of cookbooks. The first one in 1800 was by Amelia Simmons’s in her American Cookery, second edition, though it and other versions for the next fifty years relayed the seamen’s version.
In port, it wasn’t long before the women took the chowder and began to domesticate it for home use. Instead of the fish, they often substituted clams, mussels or oysters. Instead of the sea biscuits, they substituted local breads and then altogether replaced the starch requirement with potatoes. Recipes in the 1850’s to 1880’s began to describe the clam chowder that we enjoy today.
Newburyport as a maritime center enjoyed unique foods that assisted seamen to be able to survive and even thrive on the open seas. The port produced in ample amounts Joe Froggers, rum and sea biscuits; and the seamen repaid those provisions by introducing to us our present day clam chowder. All in all, a pretty good trade!
Today, our local restaurants have competed with each other in trying to produce the finest clam chowder possible. I invite you to test out each version. Please let us all know who you think has the best.
Then the rest of us will ‘verify’ your conclusions.
* Speaking of that, if you’re a newcomer to Newburyport and someone comes up to you and says, ‘”Yeat da bun”; the best thing is to decline politely. The general definition means, “Hey, bud, lets go out on the town and drink ourselves silly”. Talk about the ‘Old ‘port’ way of life!
American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, Albany, 1796
Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Mrs. D. A. Lincoln, 1884
Cod Fishing – The Trade, Maritime History, Sea Book, by Doug Ford, Jersey Heritage Trust
Early American Cookery, The Good Housekeeper, 1841, by Sarah Josepha Hale,
James Beard’s American Cookery, by James Beard, Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
Saltwater Foodways – New Englanders and their food, at sea and ashore, in the nineteenth century, by Sandra L. Oliver, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc. Mystic, Connecticut, 1995.
The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Child, published by Samuel S. & William Wood, New York, 1844(29th edition).
The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook, by Mrs. Mary Randolph, Baltimore, published by Plaskitt, & Cugle), 1828.