Chicken Chowder

My father died on August 29, 2010.

In the days before the funeral, family gathered to grieve and my siblings, Mary, Steve, Mark and I started dealing with the aftermath.  My brother Steve is executor of the estate and started trying to deal with the documents, policies, bills and paperwork.  My other siblings and I took some time to look around the house, wondering at the stuff that a person accumulates over 89 years – stacks of old Sunday School lessons, more empty margarine tubs than you could ever want, an unfinished doll house, and a file with a paper history of a life. In there I found a file my dad had kept with every canceled check I had written while I was in college (remember the Columbia Record Club? – and where could I have possibly gotten to on United Airlines for $17.85?) and a folder labeled “chowder”.

In Western New York chowder means chicken chowder.  It’s a staple of  summer.  Of course, no one in New England would recognize it as chowder.

When I was growing up every local volunteer fire company held Field Days.  My dad’s company was in Bergholz, where he grew up.  Some of my earliest memories are of field days – lights, food, music and sometimes fireworks.  A sort of carnival, picnic, festival, fete – what have you- that was the main fund raising event for the fire company.  The Field Day would start off with a parade of the host fire company’s members accompanied by a drum and bugle corps and their washed and waxed fire engine, along with the company members, trucks and bands from other area fire companies; Adams, St. Johnsburg, Shawnee, Gatwick and others.  After the parade, the firemen, their families and community would repair to a large field adjacent to the fire hall for food and drink, lasting well into the evening.  There would be beer tents, hamburgers and hot dogs, clam broth, french fries, ice cream, soda, games and of course, chowder.  Members of the fire company would start the night before making chowder – cutting up the vegetables and preparing the chickens to be cooked in huge cauldrons – 100 gallons each and anywhere from 4 to 6 cauldrons in a row.  The goal was to have the chowder ready by the time the parade ended just before noon.  You could get a bowl of chowder (back then you were served in heavy china bowls with metal utensils, like a proper meal) to eat at the field day with or without oyster crackers – seated on long trestle tables and benches; or you could get chowder to go – in whatever container you brought with you.  My mom always brought her pressure cooker because it had a lid that sealed tight so she didn’t have to worry about chowder ending up all over the car on the trip home.

The field days are gone.  I’m sure that the effort to pull off such an event every year took its toll on the company members.  And I’m just as sure that the lawyers put the last nail in the coffin with worries about liability.

Today some people in Western New York carry on the chowder making (without the parades and drum and bugle corps) in their back yards.  The most common chowder kettle is the stainless liner from a Whirlpool clothes washer that you’ve had your buddy weld a plate into the bottom to make it tight.  It fits neatly on top of a 55 gallon drum with a hole cut in at the bottom to form a firebox and a small smoke pipe attached near the top.  Fueled with wood, you can make about 10 or more gallons of chowder in one of these homemade mini-cauldrons.

My dad would make a batch of chowder at least once, many times twice, a year.  Mom would do a lot of the work but tending the chowder was mostly a guy thing – fire and smoke and heat, you know.  I suppose that’s a carry over from the field days when one member of the fire company was designated as Chowder Master – in charge of supervising the making of the chowder and deciding when it was done, or as my dad would say, “it’s soup”.  After they made a kettle, mom and dad would  eat it for a few days (some say it’s better the second day), but mostly they’d can and freeze it to enjoy throughout the year.  In my dad’s “chowder” folder were the records of his chowder batches dating back to the early 80’s.

The most important version dates from April 13, 1983.  That must have been a good batch (he assessed it to be “Real Good”) because it’s the recipe he referred to and based most other batches on over the next 25 years of records.  The ingredients don’t change much but there are small changes showing that he was always trying to improve on the near prefect (at one point he eliminated minced clams in favor of clam broth, I think, because of concerns about the safety of having them in the canned product).

We now live in Wisconsin where the local version of this is called Booyah (and when we lived in Indiana there was something similar called Burgoo).  Booyah is similar to chowder but not as good in my opinion – thinner, greasier and once I was served booyah with chopped chicken, bones and all.  No self-respecting Bergholz Chowder Master would dare serve chowder with bones!

The pictures are from a few years back (maybe 2005 or so).  The recipe is the original April 13, 1983 version in my dad’s handwriting, with notations, additions and deletions.  It’s the only recipe written in two, alternating colors.  I have no idea why he would do that.

Click here for a new post with a transcription of the original recipe and a cut-down kitchen stove-sized version.

Chowder Master

Mom tasting the Chowder before it gets it official OK from the Master

My sister stirs while the Master checks the chowder's progress

13 gallons of the finest Fireman's Field Day Chowder

Chowder recipe from April 13, 1983

Detailed notes on the progress of the chowder

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86 thoughts on “Chicken Chowder

  1. Verrry interesting~ Being a former Wisconsinite, it’s hard to imagine something ‘better than’ a good booyah! We better look into this a bit more. Just like gumbos from the New Orleans area, every small area of NE Wisconsin seems to have their own favorite booyah recipe served up during their Kermiss or town picnic.

  2. Thanks for the recipe. My wife and I are going to try the stove top version. For years I ate chowder from the Sanborn field day, and still do from Johnsburg and occasionally Hoovers. I knew some Heuers at St John Lutheran Church (Harold?), and went to school with Mark and Jim at NW. Thanks again.
    Jerry and Robin Truesdell

    • I hope the recipe stands up to your memories. Harold was my dad, Mark my brother and Jim my cousin. Small town and not too many Heuers so we’re all related somehow.

  3. Grew up in NT and remember chowder from the farmers market, engine shows, cold days doing construction on my house, pig roasts, just about everywhere. Now in NJ and trying to bring it here for tailgating. Will see what I can come up with! Though I might cheat and use a 7.5 gallon pot and a propane burner…..shame shame. Thanks again for posting this! Never realized it was such a local thing.

      • Yup, little did I know that Friday Fish Fries, Beef on Weck, Sponge Candy, Faschnauts, and other things were so ingrained in WNY life. Slowly bringing them all to the Garden State.

  4. Hello!

    I stumbled upon your blog while researching some family history. My grandfather was Elmer Heuer. I remember my father and uncle talking about this chowder as being something pretty special. (I’m not sure that they still make it the same in Bergholtz anymore)

    As I’ve been looking more up about the family, I found a newspaper article from 1937-38 that mentions a George Heuer serving as the chowder master. I wonder if it’s the same recipe,,,

    Anyways, thank you for sharing this. I’ve been trying to track down some original recipes from Heuer’s Market with very little luck. But this is definitely a cool discovery!

    • Hi,
      As far as I know, the Fire Company still has monthly chowder sales. There’s a YouTube video about the sales at http://youtu.be/KObDXwG0cH0 It’s from 2008 but I don’t expect much has changed. I don’t know the protocol for being Chowder Master – I assume there is ONE Bergholz chowder recipe that’s been the same for decades and that the Master doesn’t mess with. When I still lived in the area and ate chowder at different Fire Company Field Days there was a notable difference between the different company’s chowders – some were more greasy, some thinner, some didn’t pick the chicken bones out as well. But the chowder at each Fire Company, although different from each other, was consistent at each company from year to year.

      I never knew your grandfather Elmer or great uncle Louis. I know the store was still open when I lived in the area but I don’t remember ever going there but I imagine we did – I just don’t remember – I know my father did from time to time. If you’re interested, I have an article from the Niagara Gazette about Elmer and Louis and the store. When the article was written it says they were still delivering 100 – 125 boxes of groceries to their steady customers. It also mentions the blizzard of ’77 so the article must date later than that. I could send you a copy of it if you’re interested. Sorry, I don’t have any recipes from the store though.

  5. Woke up this Father’s Day morning missing everything about my dad….and thinking about that chowder! Originally from North Tonawanda we ate our fair share of field day chowder. I, too can remember my mother taking a container with her to bring some chowder home. I can remember my Uncle making chowder. Your post made my day! I nice search on Google helped me find it 🙂
    Have a wonderful Sunday! Here’s to those dad’s who made great memories for us!!

  6. My brother and I belonged to the Cambria Drum and Bugle Corps in the 50s and I sure remember those field days and the smell of chowder in the air. There are still places in Niagara County that have Chicken Chowder sales and our Church just had theirs a few weeks ago. My neighbor found your (Dad’s) recipe a few years back. We made our own changes and now make it every fall. A great recipe and a great memory! Thanks.

    • Sure, I remember Cambria Drum and Bugle. Back then the Corps in Western NY were all affiliated with volunteer fire companies and the musicians, if I’m not wrong, were all volunteers too unlike the semi-pro operations that I see on TV sometimes. Glad to have given you the recipe and the awaken some good memories.

  7. Great Post!

    What fond memories I have as a kid going to the firehall with my grandmother and getting chowder. I cant remember the firehall (somewhere in the city of Tonowanda) But I do remember it being a once a month thing. Why has this wonderful tradition faded to the occasional field day or the random firehall?

    I am a volunteer fireman in Northern Niagara County NY. I may have to do something about this:)

    My kids deserve the same great food memories I had as a child.

    • Glad to bring back pleasant memories for you.

      I suspect there are three factors in the decline of chowder sales. First and foremost, they take a lot of time and volunteer work to pull off. People are busy and unwilling or unable to run a sale on a regular basis. Second, and I have no real knowledge to base this upon, I’d bet that liability lawyers and health departments have taken their toll. Third, changing tastes and food habits. If you think of chowder sales as a form of convenience food (take it home and eat it), there are supermarkets full of competing options. When I was a kid, the only fresh vegetable in winter were cabbage, onions and potatoes and the only convenience food was the hamburger in the meat case that the butcher (real butcher, not “meat cutter”) would grind for you so you didn’t have to grind the beef yourself at home.

    • Steve,
      You probably don’t remember me but your father and I were good friends. In our younger years we hunted together and we were members of the Tonawanda Sportsmens Club for many years. Later we were employees of the same company,

      Regarding the Chicken chowder question. I made chowder for the Sanborn Fire Company for many years at their annual field day. Chowder sales still take place at Sanborn two or three times a year. Bergholtz Fre Company still has a monthly chowder sale. Niagara Hose in Tonawanda also still has a chowder sale now and then. I have a chowder kettle at home and Sharron and I will have a chowder party once in a while. Its great fun, good food and a great excuse to get together with friends….

      I watch your TV show on occasion and you remind me so much of your Dad.

      Best Regards,
      Paul A. Otto

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. I always wondered what was in the chowder. My grandma lived in Wilson until her death in 2003 and I have many great memories of going down to sleep over and go to field day.

  9. Thank you for a touching story and for bringing back some great memories! I am originally from that area too, and always had a wonderful time at the field days. although I live in NC now, I always make a couple of batches of chowder every winter (20 quarts each) for my family and kids. A lot of work and a lot of fun.

  10. Mr. Heuer, THANK YOU for a marvelous homage to a fond memory. I grew up in Sanborn, and always treasured the chowder festivals. I actually remember them for their rivalry aspect between various Churches…my childhood church was St. Andrew’s in Pekin, and in June, the various church picnics would fill each Sunday, one here and one there.

    Bergholtz was also special to me, as I attended Holy Ghost Lutheran School. By then (the late 60s) churches seemed to have done away with the picnics/chowder sales, and the firehalls & field days were the best sources for it.

    I now live in Lancaster County, PA; here, the PA Dutch folks make their hallmark soup: Chicken Corn soup. Not bad, but definitely NOT chicken chowder! I get back there so seldom any more, but love to bring some home with me when I do. Is there any place on the internet that offers dates on upcoming chowder sales?

    (PS….are you related to Marcia Heuer?)

    Best,
    Howard Wendt

      • Thanks, Paul. Unfortunately, I cannot be in Sanborn. But maybe I can get friends to freeze some for me!

      • Yes, Paul, but distantly. Forrest and my dad (Norman) were actually third cousins, according to the Haseley Family website. I knew Forrest and his family, though, because we both belonged to St. Paul congregation in the 70s. GREAT people!

  11. I came across your site here when showing a coworker a chowder kettle. I am a NT transplant in the pacific northwest. We moved here with the old ringer washer basin in tow. Planning on starting the tradition this year (been transplanted for 3 years now). Can’t wait for the natives to get a taste of some real good chowder.
    My parents still do their chowder on the first saturday in October in Lockport. Dad starts the fire about 6. All the meat is precooked. It’s ready for consumption by about 4 pm.
    It was great to see there are other WNY’ers keeping the tradition alive!

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your recipe! I moved into Bergholz in August 1984 and our first night there the Bergholz German band was practicing.. OOOmmm pa pa… I wondered where the heck my parents moved me to! But growing up and now as an adult, I realize what a special place Bergholz is!

  13. Still live in NT and have been making backyard chowder on or near new years eve since 1983. First tasted chowder at the church sunday school picnic in the early 1960’s and my family occasionally bought gratwick chowder. the tradition at the church died out by the end of the 1960’s but i re-started it around 1990 using their 78 gallon cast iron kettle. made a batch using that kettle for a chowder sale just 2 weeks ago (10/27/2012) at abiding savior lutheran on ruie road. also competed in the Glory Be To Kids Chowder Challenge a few weeks back and came in 3rd place. You can see me and my son-in-law here: http://glorybetokids.com/chowder-challenge.php too bad this absolutely delicious food has such a localized following.

    • Glad to hear that you’re keeping the tradition alive. Surprised that you’re using a cast iron kettle – I thought the health department had banned them back when they banned wood fires – the old ways are usually the best ways though. Don’t get back there much anymore – I grew up on Nash Rd.

    • this tradition is alive and well in NT and nearby communities. it seems everybody knows how to make chowder. my children, now in their late 20’s, have grown up knowing what good chowder is and will probably perpetuate the tradition for at least another generation.

  14. Your story is very much the same as mine. My dad was a chowder maker at Gratwick Hose in North Tonawanda. He also called it SOUP We had and I still have the Stainless Steel kettle from an old Maytag washing machine converted just like you said in the article. For over 20 years we made Chowder on the opening day of the NFL. We have had a hugh party at my house and we sould all start making the soup at about 5AM on that day. We still only cook over wood!! no propane fires for us, and we still use a reciept which was hand written by my dad. My dad passed away 8 years ago and that day was never the same again. However 3 years ago the Glory B for kids charity did infact srart a chowder cook off. We are proud to say we won best chowder the 2nd year, and we’ll be there agin this year. The contest is October 13, 2012. It’s held at Pine Woods park in North Tonawanda. Thanks for sharing Rick Doel

    • This is one of the last years we made chowder at the Sanborn Fire Company field days. Around 1985. We filled these 80 Gallon kettles twice and sold it all Paul A. Otto

  15. I was a Bergholtz girl too, but recently moved to Grand Island. Grand Island fire hall uses ground beef for their chowder. it is NOT the same.

    Bergholtz still sells chowder once a month and the church by the NT farmers market sells it also, but I don’t know the schedule.

    • I agree, good chowder has to have some beef (shanks, knuckles, etc.) in it but not ground beef! I knew that the Bergholtz FD still did chowder and, I think, some of the other fire companies do too (at least Adams does).

  16. i found this post while eating a bowl of chicken/beef chowder from my friend Shelly’s house. Wow what an amazing treat…She lives off of Ward and her father made a great kettle for cooking it up. Some think chowder is a recipe, but it is more of a cult-lol. I live in the City of Tonawanda and my Grandpa Buster (George Zitzka) was a chowdermaster for Delaware Hose at one point. The funny thing about chowder is that it resides near the Erie Canal area only because those 20 minutes south of Tonawanda no nothing of this delightful treat. I came across this amazing article while searching the origins of the chowder we love. So as I enjoyed my second bowl, I decided I wanted to delve into this a little more. I think a chowder fest would be appropriate for the northtowns. Maybe a contest and a history presentation. Shelly swears it is German, but I believe it may have it’s roots in many cultures and is related to building of the Erie Canal or maybe the lumber port area of North Tonawanda…hmmmm. I report back and I research it more. Love this stuff!

    • Your idea about the Canal as a focus for Chowder is interesting, although the similar-to-WNY-Chowder, Kentucky Burgoo and Wisconsin Booyah, don’t fit that model. Let us know if your research turns up anything else interesting.

    • Dear Tim,
      A chowder fest would be a great event. I am still making a kettle of Chicken Chowder once a year and Sharron and I make a real party out of the event. If you have a plan let me know how I can help.

  17. Pingback: Chowder Making in Bergholz, NY, 1974 « Another Stir of the Spoon

  18. Just made this recipe yesterday – The work was fun and I only needed one band-aid on my thumb – Thank You for sharing this wonderful recipe. I too wish to start a family tradition

  19. Dear Cousin Curt (Mary, Mark, Steve, and all your Spouses and Families),
    What a wonderful posting of your Dad, Mom, and Chicken Chowder. I thank Karen for sending this on to me so I could enjoy it as well. For others that may read this, I’m Curts’ cousin Bill and we lived all our childhood years, just 3 doors down from Uncle Harold and Aunt Jane. What precious memories we all have of your parents, and the blessing they were in our lives. Your Mom would babysit us when we came home from school until our Dad would get home from work. I remember the old tractor with the steel spiked wheels, which I believe came from Grandpa Pankow’s farm. The large garden your Father planted and all the produce your parents put up in the freezer and in canning jars. They were hard working, devoted, and religious. And they were chowder makers. I think chowder ran through our families veins. I guess we just couldn’t get enough from the firehalls and fielddays as we grew up, so we all had to make it at home, and what a chore it was. We also made chowder at my Mom and Dads, Uncle Harold and Aunt Jenis made it, Uncle George/Aunt Molly and Cousin George and Judy made it, and Cousin Alice and Chris makes it. I don’t know if many in the family know it, but what my Dad told me one day is that our Grandfather (Grandpa Pankow) was a Charter Member at Adams Fire Company. At some point in time, Grandpa was the Chowder Master at Adams. He purchased all the ingredients when they made chowder and overseen the making of it. He would have to turn in his receipts to the treasurer at Adams so Grandpa could get reimbursed. This went on for a long time. One day the treasurer asked Grandpa about a particular ingredient on the receipts that kept showing up each time Adams made chowder. That ingredient was “Chowder Spirits”. Grandpa had to tell the treasurer that this ingredient was for a bottle of whiskey for the chowder crew. So chowder making is a long time family tradition. One of which has many great memories for us cousins. God has blessed us all for being in the families we were born into, for the area we were brought up in, for the church we all attended, and for being raised on Chicken Chowder. Other people just wouldn’t understand. Thank you Curt for sharing this story with us. Now I’m hungery for a nice hot bowl of chicken chowder. God Bless…………..Cousin Bill

    • Bill,
      Thanks for your additions to the family memory. I think my grandpa John Heuer was chowder master at Bergholz for a while but he apparently didn’t generate any colorful stories like Grandpa Pankow’s. I have never heard about the “chowder spirits” – that’s great and will become an important part of our family’s chowder history.
      Curt

  20. My dad sent this to me. I love finding these nuggets of handwritten family history. When my grandfather died we did the same thing and discovered a personal letter of recommendation from the postmaster of new york for him. It was humbling to read it and re-affirmed the man we knew. These are just so great to find these things. I can’t recall having chicken chowder, but may have to give it a try! Thanks for sharing some of your family legacy.

    • Always nice to hear from another Heuer. I’m afraid with e-mail and Facebook our heirs will not have the same experience of being able to hold family history in their hands.

  21. Great blog! Could you please forward my email to Mr. Otto and Mr.lorenz so I could also try teir recipes? I have your dad’s cooking right now, they only thing I changed is I like to cook it a lot longer than your directions show!
    Thanks
    lkptwatch@yahoo.com

    • I think dad didn’t cook it as long as most people would expect because he intended to eventually can it in a pressure cooker which would further cook the ingredients.

  22. I still live in Pendleton NY (wendelville fire co) and would sure like to have that receipe for your dad’s chowder.We have tried to make it but something seems to be lacking, I’m sure your receipe would help..Thanks

    • Towards the bottom of the Chicken Chowder post, just above the pictures, there is a link to another post called Chicken Chowder – Revisited where you’ll find my dad’s full recipe and a reduced version suitable for stove-top cooking. The surprising thing for me is the amount of beef which might be the “missing” ingredient in your attempts. Good luck and enjoy!

  23. Its tough getting old! I don’t recall if I shared my recipe or not. If anyone still wants my chowder recipe I’d be happy to send it.

  24. I grew up just around the corner from Bergholz on Ward Road. I have so many fond memories of the field days. I moved away in early 80’s and have been searching for this recipe for years now. I cannot thank you enough for sharing your beautiful story and the recipe. Will be making it this weekend.

  25. Pingback: Chicken Chowder – revisited « Another Stir of the Spoon

  26. I’m from NT & used to smell and eat Gratwick Hose chowders – chicken & beef. So I was looking at Gratwick Hose # 6 and the recipe.

    Thanks for this great article.

    Frank [now in MD]

  27. Pingback: A year passed…what a coincidence « Another Stir of the Spoon

  28. Pingback: Hobbits and Chicken Chowder « Another Stir of the Spoon

  29. I have a chowder recipe of my dad’s that goes back to the early sixties and I still have his 22 1/2 gallon stainless steel kettle. I make chowder at least once or twice a year. I’d be happy to share the recipe. Does anybody know if its legal in North Tonawanda to make chowder for sale privately?

    • My dad grew up in Bergholz and the 4th of July field days were the best times of my childhood. Do you mind me asking your father’s name so I can see if my dad knew him. My father is 85 and he had a brother that was a few years older so they may grown up together. We have been wanting to go back recently to get some of that chowder. It sure was delicious.

    • Thank you for sharing this!
      Dan Lorenz, would you please share your recipe with me? kaj920@roadrunner.com THank you!! Want to have a chowder party for my sons 1st birthday in september.. I want to get a few recipes! They are hard to find! (for the right stuff that is) 🙂

    • Dan Lorenz,
      I live in Wheatfield , NY and have a smaller (SS Old Washer Basin) ketle. It’s been years since I made chowder, but I’m making some this weekend. I have a recipe but sure would like to see yours or anyone else that would share.
      Reading the Heuer story was a treat, and I will incoproate some of the recipe in my attempt to make a good WNY Chicken/Beef Chowder. Thanks dave vona
      dvone1dfv@yahoo.com

    • Dan,

      I’m sure it is legal to make and sell chowder in NT but the Niagara County Health Department would get involved if they got wind of your sale because they would want to collect their $50 food vendor license fee. I have seen chowder sold at the NT City Market on several occasions.

      PAO, Sanborn

  30. LIVED IN SANBORN FOR OVER 40 YRS AND NOW IN MINN.
    I LOVE TO COOK AND WOULD LIKE SOME ONE TO SEND ME
    A RECIPIE FOR THE CHICKEN CHOWDER I ENJOYED OVER
    THE YEARS BACK THEN, EACH PLACE LIKE SANBORN, GRATWICK HOSE, ST. PETERS LUTHERAN CHURCH, AND JOHNSBERG.
    IT WAS ALL GOOD SO I WOULD APPRECIATE A RECIPIE I
    COULD MAKE IN MY KITCHEN ABOUT A COUPLE GALLONS
    OR SO. I WOULD APPRECIATE EVER SO MUCH….DICK SYDOR

    • I am an exempt member of the Sanborn Fire Company and I made chicken chowder there for many years when field days were still going.

      My wife Sharron and I have lived in Sanborn for 50 years. Our three children grew up there and now are living in Nashville TN, Elma NY and Wheatfield NY. Sharron and I still reside on Upper Mountain Rd.

      I make a kettle of chowder a couple times a year for parties and have developed a real nice receipe for a 20 gallon kettle. If you would like to have a copy of it I would be happy to send it to you.

      Best Regards,
      Paul A. Otto

  31. I just love this tribute to your dad I still live in western NY North Tonawanda to be exact. My faher in law always make the chower on the 4th of July for the family picnic, and this story brings back memories of going to the Firemen Field Days. Now around here a few of the fire halls still make the chower and sells it the one who is most advertised is Gratwick Fire hall and the do this everyother weekend untill the end of Nov. and they always sell it out in about a hour after makeing it. Thanks for the good memories. God bless and good wishes. Rose Ramsay

  32. I transplanted to Wisconsin from Lewiston, NY. They make something here called chicken booyah, which is similar to our chowder, but not nearly as good. So, I was wondering if you could send me the recipe (try as I might, I can’t read the one you show here….old age, I guess)…as I would love to make it for our friends out here.

    Thank you,
    Pam Levering

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