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When did chowder in a bread bowl get to SF?

Robert Lauriston Mar 5, 2013 11:31 AM

Always seems weird to me that tourists associate this with SF, but I guess it started at the Wharf in the 90s, so they all saw it and locals didn't.

Earliest mention I can find of this dish is from a 1984 San Diego tourist guide, which refers to O.B. Pier Cafe's "famous clam chowder served in a bread bowl."

It was in Arizona and New England before the first reference to it in SF, in a 1992 guidebook, which doesn't say where you could get it. A 1995 guidebook says "the corner of Jefferson and Taylor is jam-packed with street stands that hawk all kinds of goodies, including ... thick clam chowder in a bread bowl." First reference I find to it specifically at Boudin is 1996.

  1. paulj Mar 6, 2013 02:49 PM

    Moby Dick, ch 15, Chowder

    " It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt."

    And the inn keeper's last question of the night:
    "But the chowder; clam or cod to-morrow for breakfast, men?”"

    1. h
      hyperbowler Mar 6, 2013 11:32 AM

      "Always seems weird to me that tourists associate this with SF, but I guess it started at the Wharf in the 90s, so they all saw it and locals didn't."

      Robert, consider making a post on one of the general boards. Maybe someone has some vacation photos :-)

      Whatever it's origin, soup/chili in a breadbowl is a brilliant marketing idea/convenience food for touristy areas. Cheap ingredients, no customizations or reheating required, easily transportable without spilling thanks to the gloopiness, and a heat resistant container. With restaurants no longer serving bread as common practice, and not everyone wanting a sandwich for lunch, Boudin must have benefitted tremendously from this way of foisting a San Francisco specialty to the masses.

      1 Reply
      1. re: hyperbowler
        Robert Lauriston Mar 6, 2013 11:59 AM

        I think Boudin may have suffered from the low-carb and gluten-free fads. Ten years ago they had 32 cafes, now they're down to 12.

      2. m
        ML8000 Mar 6, 2013 09:30 AM

        I think chowder in bread bowls first appeared first in SF amongst the Fisherman's Wharf sidewalk vendors. Can't prove it but maybe someone else can.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ML8000
          sunshine842 Mar 6, 2013 10:15 AM

          we got ours from a takeout window in the side of the building. Please don't ask me to tell you the name -- I forget!

          1. re: ML8000
            Robert Lauriston Mar 6, 2013 11:25 AM

            What evidence I've found to date suggests that chowder in a bread bowl was invented elsewhere, was first served in SF by a sidewalk vendor at the Wharf in the late 80s, and remained pretty much unknown to locals until the Boudin chain started serving it in other neighborhoods circa 1995.

          2. paulj Mar 5, 2013 07:03 PM

            It goes back to the Middle Ages
            FoodTimeLine quotes a book on French cooking, linking it to a sop, bread use to soak up bread, or the broth poured on bread.

            ""Our modern word "soup" derives from the Old French word sope and soupe. The French word was used in England in the in the form of sop at the end of the Middle Ages ... When cooks in the Middle Ages spoke of "soup," what they and the people for whom they were cooking really understood was a dish comprising primarily a piece of bread or toast soaked in a liquid or over which a liquid had been poured.... In fact it was precisely because of the normal inclusion of a sop in this end-of-the-day meal that it became called "souper" or "supper."

            In the Middle Ages, trenchers, thick slices of stale coarse bread where commonly used as plates.

            Early forms of chowder were thick fish stews thickened with crackers or ships biscuits. The thinner New England version developed as potatoes came into use in the 19th c.

            Chauvinistic New Englanders view the thick West Coast version of chowder (that is suitable for a bread bowl) as an abomination.

            1 Reply
            1. re: paulj
              lakemerritter Mar 5, 2013 09:27 PM

              Sure do.

            2. h
              hyperbowler Mar 5, 2013 05:26 PM

              Tangential, but when does serving dip in breadbowls go back to? I could be off by a few decades, but I think it's in the mid-70s Joy of Cooking for cheese dips. I never saw a bread bowl of any type until moving to California in the 2000s.

              If that 1996 is accurate for Boudin, you might be amused by this 1995 thread discussing chili and clam chowder being served at Disney in 1995.


              And a google ngram reference to stew (not chowder specifically) in a breadbowl at Disney in 1992 (ngram is flakey, so that copyright date might be inaccurate



              9 Replies
              1. re: hyperbowler
                calumin Mar 5, 2013 05:52 PM

                Believe it or not, there is a whole book dedicated to the craft of cooking with a sourdough bread bowl.


                It was written in 2005, but the opening pages (which you can preview on Amazon) talk about the co-author serving spinach dip in a sourdough bowl in his restaurant for the 1985 Super Bowl (which as football fans know was a big event for San Francisco).

                The very first paragraph of the book talks about how world famous Fisherman's Wharf clam chowder in a bowl is (and also claims that the dish was invented in San Francisco).

                1. re: hyperbowler
                  wally Mar 5, 2013 05:59 PM

                  Dip in bread bowls was kind of the thing in the mid 70's in SF among the more adventurous home entertainers.

                  1. re: wally
                    sunshine842 Mar 5, 2013 10:29 PM

                    Knorr spinach dip in a pumpernickel bowl.

                    1. re: sunshine842
                      wally Mar 6, 2013 06:42 AM

                      The stuff I had frequently was in a sourdough bowl.

                  2. re: hyperbowler
                    hyperbowler Mar 6, 2013 07:07 AM

                    The 1974 Joy of Cooking talks about using hollowed out cabbage or pineapples for cheese dips, but not a bread bowl. Must be a later edition...

                    1. re: hyperbowler
                      Glencora Mar 6, 2013 09:42 AM

                      And the difference between cabbage and bread (though both are odd) is that no one at a cocktail party is going to start chewing on the cabbage but presumably the point of the bread bowl is to eat at least some of the bread. Otherwise the idea of putting gloppy New England clam chowder in an authentic SF product (the sourdough) is even more bizarre. Serving dip in bread bowls is pretty strange, now that I think about it. Were people supposed to eat it?

                      1. re: Glencora
                        wally Mar 6, 2013 10:13 AM

                        The bowls were usually surrounded by the pieces of bread pulled out of the "bowl". You were supposed to use them to dip into the (usually spinach)dip. As alcohol consumption increased, the bowl was sometimes eaten. It was better to make the bowls of older (couple of days) sourdough because they held together better, so if it had spinach dip in it for a few hours it was easier to eat.

                        1. re: wally
                          wolfe Mar 6, 2013 12:19 PM

                          Older round sourdoughs make good "bowl" ing balls.

                        2. re: Glencora
                          sunshine842 Mar 6, 2013 10:14 AM

                          The bread torn out of the boule is cut/torn into bite-sized pieces, and you use that to eat the bread. And at the end of the night, that dip-impregnated bread is good eats.

                    2. c
                      calumin Mar 5, 2013 05:11 PM

                      I seem to remember chowder in a bread bowl from the 1980's. Not sure if Boudin started it but they certainly are the ones who popularized it.

                      What I remember even more was how much sourdough used to be associated with San Francisco -- a lot more than it is today. It gradually fell out of favor over the past 20 years, with Parisian & now Colombo going under and with artisan bread companies like Acme becoming popular.

                      I can find Herb Caen quotes about sourdough & Dungeness crab, but not about chowder bread bowls, so the tradition can't go that far back.

                      1. killersmile Mar 5, 2013 03:38 PM

                        At least by 1989 since I remember eating it as a kid on my first trip to SF.

                        1. sunshine842 Mar 5, 2013 02:14 PM

                          I know I had chowder in a sourdough bowl on Fisherman's Wharf in 1990 and again in 1991. Yep, I was a tourist. Yep, it was good -- sitting on the wharf eating good chowder, drinking a cold bottle of Anchor Steam and watching the boats come and go.

                          1. pikawicca Mar 5, 2013 02:14 PM

                            Definitely not around when I was growing up (50's/60's).

                            1. Glencora Mar 5, 2013 02:11 PM

                              Good question. I certainly didn't grow up eating it and there's no reference to it the Rand McNally 1981 San Francisco Guide I recently dug up. I do remember my son eating it a lot when was little -- mid to late 90s -- at the Boudin cafes at the malls in Walnut Creek and San Rafael and the one near 4th Street in Berkeley. The second two are gone now. Maybe the locals (over the age of 5) don't like playing with their food?

                              1. smatbrat Mar 5, 2013 02:09 PM

                                Gosh, I remember the bread bowl from the 80's for sure.

                                Chowder specifically in the bread bowl, no idea. but I LOVE SF food history so let us know what else you find out!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: smatbrat
                                  paulj Mar 5, 2013 02:18 PM

                                  I remember chowed in a bread bowl in the 1980s - in Washington and British Columbia.

                                2. a
                                  Alan408 Mar 5, 2013 12:20 PM

                                  I think it was at Candlestick in the late 80's, chili in a bread bowl may have been first, mid 80's.

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