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Few categories of food have as many different regional identities as soup. Of course, everybody everywhere knows tomato soup, chicken noodle soup, French onion soup, and vegetable soup. But consider the one small subset of soup known as chowder. There is New England chowder, which is milk- or cream-based and enriched with salt pork, potatoes and clams (although sometimes other seafood as well). There is Rhode Island chowder, which is a creamy bisque with just enough tomatoes to turn it blushing pink. A few miles to the west is Southern New England chowder, made without milk or cream and no vegetables other than potatoes and onions, just a swirl of minced clams and their nectar. Manhattan clam chowder, which Yankees disavow, is as vegetable-thick as minestrone. Then there is Oregon chowder, which features clams and nuggets of potato and ranges from rib-sticking to elegant. It usually is flavored with smoked bacon or salt pork and served with a pat of butter melting on top.
New England makes a point of differentiating between seafood chowder and seafood stew, the latter a soup of warm milk or cream seasoned with salt and pepper, pooled with melted butter, and containing large morsels of lobster or fish but no potatoes or vegetables whatsoever. (Chowder always contains potatoes.)
Although most people think of chowder as a seafood dish, inland New England also is known for farmhouse chowder, which is seafood-free and thick enough with corn and potatoes to verge on forkworthy stew. Even downstate Illinois has a chowder all its own – a hunter-farmer’s dish made with beef and/or chicken (and, historically, squirrel) along with beans, cabbage, and tomatoes. It’s so much a local emblem that Edwards County, Illinois, has declared itself to be the Chowder Capital of the World.
Here are a few of the country’s distinctly regional soups: Lowcountry she-crab soup, Virginia peanut soup, Minorcan chowder in St. Augustine, gumbo in New Orleans and Cajun country, conch chowder in the Florida Keys, cream of artichoke soup in California, Kentucky burgoo, pot likker in the Deep South (that’s liquid retrieved when greens are boiled, usually with pork) and Oklahoma steak soup that contains testicles as well as steak.
And, of course, there is a whole world of American-restaurant ethnic soups, a few of the most familiar being Jewish matzoh ball, Chinese wonton and hot & sour soups, Thai tom yum and tom ka, Vietnamese pho, Italian wedding soup (so named because it weds greens and meat), Mexican posole and menudo, and Japanese ramen.
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