The Wonderful World of Clam Chowder

A drawing of a green bowl with clam chowder in it.
A delicious bowl of chowder.

Illustration by Park Guide Noemesha Williams

By Park Guide Kristal Ip

Whether you're a lifelong resident or a first time visitor, you should know that San Francisco is crazy about food! One of the city's most famous and popular dishes is clam chowder in a bread bowl. It's a good meal any day of the week, but the time when you might really appreciate it is on a cool, misty afternoon when the fog is as thick as your soup!

Did you know that clam chowder has a history that reaches back before San Francisco even became a city? The earliest versions of chowder (basically any kind of seafood stew or soup) date back to the 16th and 17th centuries in fishing villages along the coasts of France and England. Villagers would prepare a large cauldron with soup ingredients and then wait for the fishermen to come back to add whatever seafood they caught that day. European settlers eventually brought chowder to America.

A drawing of a blue fish.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice...

Illustration by Park Guide Noemesha Williams

The first printed recipe of chowder was published on September 22, 1751 in the Boston Evening Post.

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 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*.

*Omnium-gatherum means an assortment

A drawing of a brown, cute potato with green eyes.

Illustration by Park Guide Noemesha Williams

Chowder has always come in many different forms, based on the cultures that inspired them or the available ingredients. Today in the United States there are five main versions that are familiar to most people.

1. New England Clam Chowder: This is the thick, creamy white chowder. It contains cream or milk, potatoes, and onions and is usually served with crunchy oyster crackers.

2. Manhattan Clam Chowder: Instead of dairy, this chowder uses a tomato base, which accounts for the red color. The use of tomatoes was probably started by Portuguese immigrants.

A drawing of a red tomatoe with eyes and eyelashes.

Illustration by Park Guide Noemesha Williams

3. Rhode Island Clam Chowder: Rhode Island natives are particularly fond of this variety because it uses quahogs, a type of clam that is abundant in that state. There is no dairy or tomato in Rhode Island chowder and the broth is clear.

4. Minorcan Clam Chowder: Settlers from Minorca, Spain came up with this variation in Florida. Like the Manhattan kind, it has a tomato base, but what makes it unique is the use of bell peppers and the datil pepper, which is very, very hot!

5. Finally, we have the San Francisco style, which serves New England chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Sourdough became popular in San Francisco when the French baker Isidore Boudin immigrated here in 1849. He created his own blend of sourdough and it has been popular ever since. These days, you can find "chowder in a bread bowl" all along Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero, not to mention numerous restaurants around the city.

So there you have it! Try making chowder at home, using whatever ingredients you especially like, or ingredients that are unique to where you live. You don't need to use clams; fish, crabs, or even corn can be used. Maybe you can invent your own recipe that will become famous someday!

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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