Chowder parties became popular in the mid-19th century. The following excerpt describes a family beach picnic in southern Maine in 1865. Hersina Fletcher Paul of Eliot was writing to her brother, Aaron Jones Fletcher, who was still serving in the Union Army. Although General Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in April, the Civil War continued for a couple more months.
“We thought we would all go down in the harbor and have a chowder. We made all preparation, took the pot and other fixing, and started. Mr. Paul Murray, Elisa, Aunt Abigail, Martha, George, and myself we got down there, caught fish enough for the chowder, and then there came up [a] dreadful thunder shower,” Hersina wrote. “We went ashore and made a fire, and George and I held an umbrella over it until it got to burning, and we had the chowder.
“It was good,” she continued. William spred [sic] the sail over the rock and we did not get very wet then. But we had showers all the afternoon. We started home in the rain, but it cleared away before we got home, but we were a pretty looking set before we got home. We got wet enough to take the starch out of our clothes. We had a good time laughing at each other, for I don’t know who looked the worst.”
Of course, quick-drying sportswear had not been invented. Imagine going out in a sailboat for a chowder fest wearing starched linen or cotton clothes. No wonder the picnicking party looked like dish rags after the rain.
The following recipe is adapted from one in Esther Howland’s, “New England Economical Housekeeper” published in 1845. Unlike earlier published recipes for seafood chowders, this one included both potatoes and cream or milk.