Some believe it was first cooked by the French and that its name comes from “chauderie”. Others believe it came from English fishermen and the name is derived from the Old English word “jowter” which meant “fish peddler” or “mounted peddler of fish.” Still another theory is that chowder was developed out of fishing camps in the Americas with input from Micmac Indians.
One point most people can agree upon is that chowder was a dish that evolved on the open ocean. It was shaped by common ingredients and cooking practices aboard sailing and fishing ships of different nationalities. Sailors were among the first and greatest disciples of chowder.
Early sailing vessels had very limited pantries. Their stores usually did not consist of much more than hard tack (a simple type of cracker), salted pork, salted fish, onions, and root vegetables. In an effort both to cook in rough weather conditions and make these ingredients more appealing, shipboard fare was often boiled down into stews. These concoctions were early versions of chowder. They were not called such at first, but instead went by such varied names as Loblolly, Lobscouse, Sea Pie (there were probably layers of ship’s biscuits in this one), and Burgoo. Eventually the name chowder won out. There are references to it by the early 1700’s, and the term was common in the English language by 1751. A popular novel of the time even featured a small dog with the name “chowder.”
It was in the 1850’s that chowder reached the height of its popularity in the U.S. In the summertime, families held “chowder parties” on the beach, cooking fish they caught in giant kettles on the shore. At church dinners, fairs, and political rallies, huge vats of chowder were often served as part of the festivities.
Around the turn of the century, the first recipe describing a tomato based chowder, or a Manhattan Chowder, was published. This development would ultimately pit two different sides of chowder enthusiasts against one another in a grudging rivalry. While the rest of the country is probably indifferent to the controversy (since both versions really are quite delicious) in the northeast it is taken fairly seriously, as are most matters of regional pride. Tomato chowders are popular south of Rhode Island, while milk based chowders are found to the north. In 1939, an assemblyman named Seeder even introduced into Maine Legislature a bill to make tomato clam chowder illegal in the state.