Friday, April 13, 2007

Chowder: The Great Identity Theft

We here at The Slow Cook have pledged to stamp out creeping food fad-ism wherever it raises its ugly head. So today we are mounting a defense of traditional chowder, which has been so badly maligned in a "Kitchen Window" column dated April 11 on the National Public Radio website.

"Chowder? In the spring?" the author asks, as if anyone other than the editors at NPR were looking for a spring chowder.

He then goes on to assert:

"But there is no real reason chowders should be limited to a particular season."


"The word, actually, can be applied to any thick, rich soup containing chunks of food."

It can?

To which we must reply: DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!

Any soup with chunks of food in it? Was anyone awake at NPR when this piece of foolery floated over the transom? Does the editor have a clue what chowder is?

The reader is then subjected to three new takes on "chowder," one of them based on asparagus, another on Cajun shrimp (I swear, I am not making this up), and a third on potatoes.

None of which, I would like to point out, bear any spiritual kinship whatsoever with actual chowder.

Chowder dates most likely to the 18th century and in its original form consisted of the most basic fisherman's provisions: salt pork, onions, hardtack (later to become Pilot Bread), fish and water. It was with these simple ingredients that men hard at work foraging food from the cold waters of the North Atlantic sustained themselves aboard their wooden vessels.

It wasn't until the 19th Century that a recipe for chowder actually appeared in an American cookbook, and not until mid-century that ingredients such as potatoes and milk began to gain acceptance. At this point, chowder entered the popular lexicon. Families took to "chowdering" on the weekends, which meant loading a boat with a big pot and utensils, sailing off to an island and cooking a batch of chowder on the beach, as depicted in the drawing above.

Later, Midwestern famers would appropriate the technique for making a chowder of corn.

Fast-forward 150 years and we have a complete perversion of the chowder tradition. It seems that if you simply twist the definition of a chowder a little--easy to do on a computer keyboard--anything that swims in a bowl can be called a chowder.

"Given such a simple definition, chowders can take advantage of whatever the season offers," the author of the NPR piece avers. (Or is this just a simple-minded editor talking?) Thus, we now have chowders with cheese, chowders with squash, chowders with mushrooms. Any backwater chef trying to goose his menu a little can call his tomato soup a "summer chowder."

Then there is this pretzel-shaped piece of logic: "In spring, beets make a delicious, colorful chowder usually called borscht."

Exactly! Soup made out of beets already has a name. It's called "borscht." Why in the world do we need to change it to chowder?

I believe this is a problem of too many food writers with too much time on their hands. A 24-hour news cycle facilitated by the internet now requires more copy than we can actually provide. Thus, we are now about re-categorizing and re-naming all of our foods to keep the writers and the editors busy.

This would not be such a problem except that mongrelizing a traditional food such as chowder simply sucks all the meaning out of the dish. We who care about how America eats often rue the fact that there is no "national" cuisine in the way of, say, the French or the Italians, that our food heritage always seems to be borrowed from somewhere else. We cling to those traditions that we do have: The Cajun tradition, the Southern tradition, the barbeque tradition and, yes, the New England chowder tradition.

The last thing we need are food writers misappropriating our regional traditions simply to satisfy some venal craving for new and different foods. If you are so bored with the foods we already have, if you are so badly in need of something new and different, I say make something up, but don't call it a chowder. Better yet, keep it to yourself.

Note to NPR: The Cajun already have a shrimp gumbo. They don't need a shrimp chowder.

And if you think I'm making this up, you can read the actual NPR article at

Oh, and this would be a perfect time for a nice bowl of asparagus soup.