Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chowder Beer.

Yesterday we considered chowder – the fish stew/soup claimed by New Englanders as one of their own dishes (although it may have roots in medieval England?). Once upon a time there was also a thing called chowder beer. Beer made from fish? Fish-flavoured beer?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘chowder beer’ is ‘a liquor made by boiling black spruce in water and mixing molasses with the decoction.’ In other words, it is spruce beer. According to the OED, in the fifteenth century (in Britain) ‘spruce beer’ was ‘Beer from Prussia’, and also (simultaneously?) ‘a fermented beverage made with an extract from the leaves and branches of the spruce fir.’ It appears therefore that British spruce (or ‘chowder’) beer well and truly precedes fish chowder stew/soup - which seems to have popped up, linguistically speaking, in eighteenth century America. The ‘American’ connection is presumably the addition of molasses?

I am comfortable with the connection between beer and Prussia, but am baffled by the possible associations between beer and Prussia and fish, soup, and spruce trees. The OED fails to hazard a guess at the connection, but on further examination there does appear to be a vaguely fishy connection. A clue appears in The history of Cornwall, civil, military, religious.., by Richard Polwhele (1816):

In the London Mag for September 1764, a correspondent communicates “the experiences of Mr Peter Kingwood, of Topsham, in Devonshire (who had been many years in the sea service, and continued to his death to be concerned in shipping) in regard to a the utility of a cheap and easily prepared drink, called by him chowder beer, for preventing the scurvy in long voyages, or for the cure of it where it may have been contracted.

It was known well before this time that ‘spruce beer’ was good for ‘inward bruises’ (which could have been caused by scurvy?) So, the connection may be that this spruce (chowder) beer was useful for those embarking on long fishing voyages – perhaps to the distant cod banks of New England??? Remember the possible jowter (fish peddlar)/chowder connection mentioned in yesterday’s post??? Please do be opinionated on this topic, for I am very intrigued.

In the meanwhile, Richard Polwhele’s book gives a very basic recipe for chowder beer:

The method of preparation of chowder beer is as follows: take twelve gallons of water, and put therin three pounds and a half of black spruce. Boil it for three hours; then take out the fir, and put to the liquor seven pounds of melasses, and just boil it up. Then take it off, strain it through a sieve, and when milk warm, put to it about four spoonfuls of yeast to work it. For common drink for seamen, two gallons of melasses may e sufficient to an hogshead of liquor. It soon works. In two or three days stop the bung in the cask, and in five or six days, when fine, bottle it for drinking.

Quotation for the Day

Scurvy: A disease characterized by general debility of the body, extreme tenderness of the gums, foul breath, subcutaneous eruptions and pains in the limbs, … Now recognized as due to insufficient ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the diet.
Oxford English Dictionary.

1 comment:

J.W. said...

Very nice blog! As another historic food geek I'm glad to have stumbled onto your site!