Home Maine How Clam Chowder Came to New England

How Clam Chowder Came to New England

Thank the Huguenots and the Scots-Irish

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If it weren’t for religious persecution, clam chowder might never have happened.

In the 16th century, Catholic France began persecuting Huguenots. Some of them migrated to Northern Ireland, dominated by another Protestant group — Presbyterians. The Presbyterians welcomed the Huguenots as fellow Protestants and skilled artisans.

But then in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Anglican England began persecuting anyone who wasn’t Anglican. The Irish Parliament passed a series of laws, called the Penal Laws, to wipe out Catholicism. Then in 1704, it passed the Test Act, which punished anyone who didn’t worship the Anglican way. People had to prove they had taken communion in the Irish branch of the Anglican Church, the Church of Ireland, if they wanted to serve in the army or in the government. They also had to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland. Under the Test Act, the government no longer recognized non-Anglican clergy, and it didn’t recognize non-Anglican marriages.

The Clam Years

The Penal Laws drove Irish Catholics and Presbyterians to North America, where they settled the frontier and planted the potato. Between 1717 and 1775, 250,000 Irish came to America, 200,000 of them Ulster Presbyterians, most of the rest Catholic.

Huguenot cross

They first came to Boston, where the Puritans didn’t especially welcome them. But Gov. Samuel Shute saw how he could use the Ulster Irish. Maine, which then belonged to Massachusetts, was then a battleground. Settlers and natives had been fighting for decades, and natives raided Massachusetts towns like Billerica, only 25 miles from Boston. Shute thought Scots-Irish settlements would make a convenient barrier along the frontier. So in 1718 he agreed to give them land. Some of them came to Maine and settled Bangor, Belfast, Newry and Limerick. (Some stayed in Boston. Peter Faneuil and Paul Revere were Huguenots.)

Maine is about the size of Ireland. Like Ireland, it has a long coastline, mountains and rivers filled with spawning salmon. And, starting in 1718, Maine, like Ireland, had poor hungry Irish people.

The Clam Chowder Story

The Scots-Irish had brought with them Huguenots, who had once lived along the coast of France from Bordeaux to Brittany. That’s where the word chowder came from – the French word chaudière. 

M.M. Drymon, in her Scotch-Irish Foodways in America: Recipes from History, points out that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word “chowder” to the heartland of the Huguenots.

Huguenot settlers

During the difficult early years, the starving settlers on the Maine coast lived on clams and potatoes. They called those dire times “the clam years.” And thus clam chowder as we know it came to New England.

A nice big bowl of clam chowder

Fish soup, of course, isn’t unknown throughout the rest of the world. But the Irish and Huguenots who settled Maine brought something special to the table: clam chowder with potatoes.

Potatoes originated in the Americas, but Europeans didn’t actually eat them. Not until Spanish ships brought them back to Europe. The Irish were the first Europeans to cultivate the potato in order to eat it. Scots-Irish who settled Londonderry, N.H., are credited with planting the first potato in the American colonies.

Today, any pub in Ireland that serves traditional Irish food likely sells Irish fish chowder — in Dublin, especially.  And most New England pubs that serve food offer clam or fish chowder. There’s one big difference between the two kinds of seafood chowders, though: the Irish usually include smoked fish. New Englanders just include clams. And potatoes.

Huguenot cross by By Syryatsu – Own work (création personnelle) modified from File:Blason_ville_fr_Lacoste_(Vaucluse).svg by User:Spedona, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5143336.

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