It’s Chowder Season Back Home

When I began this blog, I promised I’d tell you the least you need to know about writing, publishing, teaching, and other stuff. Well, today’s entry gives you some of that “other stuff,” a bit of the culture from my native southeastern Illinois, where right now it’s the heart of chowder season. Not chowder as in corn chowder, and not chowder as in clam chowder. The chowder from southeastern Illinois is a thick and hearty vegetable soup, but more than that it’s an event that provides a homecoming for many folks who return to the small rural communities of their youth. A reunion, a party, a coming-together, a fellowship. It’s personal.

When I was born, my parents had a farm on the Lawrence County side of the Richland/Lawrence County Road, not far from Berryville, Illinois. My grandmother lived there, in a small frame house, catty-cornered from the Berryville General Store, which at one time she and my grandfather leased. Just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road that ran by my grandmother’s house,  was the Berryville School (grades 1-8), where my mother at one time taught. Across the road from the school was a grove of trees and a shelter house. I seem to recall that the grove belonged to my grandmother’s neighbor, Billy Higgins, but I’m not positive about that.

At any rate, it was here in the grove where each Saturday before Labor Day, the chowder was held. The night before, the women of the community gathered at the shelter house to prepare the vegetables. I remember the women sitting beneath the bare light bulbs that hung from the shelter’s ceiling as they cut up potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and whatever else from their gardens would go into the chowder. The men would come before dawn to build the wood fires beneath the iron cauldrons and to stir the mix of water, wild game, seasonings, and vegetables, until it was ready to serve. They used long wooden paddles to keep the chowder from scorching. Each community had its own recipe and most of them kept that recipe a secret.

Then the people would come, their cars and trucks pulled off onto the shoulders on both sides of the road. Folks would walk up that road, some of them toting gallon Mason jars so they could buy chowder to take home with them. Others just bought a bowl and maybe a hamburger or a fish sandwich and a piece of pie or a slice of cake. They sat at long tables in the shady grove, elbow to elbow with their neighbors, or with prodigals come home, and they ate, and laughed, and told stories, and remembered. Soon the entertainment began: a local country band performing from a hay wagon, a man who could play a cross-cut saw, a farmer who could do magic tricks. Whatever talents there were to be put on display. There might even be a raffle as night started to fall, all the items donated by local businesses. You could win a new grease gun and a case of cartridges, or a free haircut, or a gun cleaning kit, or any number of practical and useful things. I remember once there was even a queen contest. I remember the girls in their one-piece bathing suits for that part of the competition.

The chowder was the event I looked forward to all summer. I was an only child, and it was grand to have this one day and evening when I could play with other kids in that grove of trees, when I could eat ice cream served from round paper cartons and drink pop out of ice cold bottles pulled from metal cases filled with water, when I could see my father relaxed and jovial and eager to shoot the b.s. with the other farmers, when my mother visited happily with men and women who had been her students or with people who had been her girlhood friends and then moved away, when we were all a family there in Berryville, where such chowders had been held since 1946, and will be held again this coming Saturday. Sixty-five years of chowders in this little community that consisted in my childhood of that general store, two churches, that school that would soon close due to consolidation and become a community center instead, and a handful of houses. Sixty-five years of coming home, or, if you still lived there, reminding yourself why you did.

(my mother volunteering as cashier at some long-ago Berryville Chowder)


  1. Cynda on August 30, 2011 at 9:41 am


    Wow!! Love your descriptive writing!! Reading about the chowder actually made me feel oddly homesick, warm and fuzzy and made me cry. Great picture of your mom!! I love reading your blogs……keep writing!!

    • Lee Martin on August 30, 2011 at 10:15 am

      Thanks, Cynda! No matter how far I am from Lawrence County, it seems that I can never stop thinking of it as home. Lots of good memories from there. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  2. Byron Edgington on September 5, 2011 at 11:51 am

    I lived outside of Evansville Indiana for a time, not far from New Harmony, and I seem to remember similar family type get-togethers around fall-ish time when folks would gather over large vats of what they called ‘Burgoo.’ Rumor had it that Burgoo had mysterious ingredients. There were even hints of such exotica as squirrel, and possum added to the mix. Just wondered if you’d ever heard the Burgoo word? (Lots of French influence in SW Indiana, so who knows what it meant.)

    • Lee Martin on September 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      Byron, I lived in Evansville for three years, and I certainly remember burgoo, which I believe was more like a spicy stew?

  3. Larry Zuber on September 6, 2011 at 9:44 am

    We’ve lived all over and I’ve never come across anything like the communal event we called “the chowder” in southeastern Illinois. I remember it as an annual ritual performed by the Olney American Legion chapter out at Miller’s Grove, almost akin to a stone soup supper, including whatever game and vegetables the members chose to bring. Lost of beer and bull while standing around stirring the immense kettle.

    • Lee Martin on September 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      Hey, Larry! Good to see a comment from you. The stone soup supper analogy is an apt one. Hope you’re doing well.

  4. Johanna van Zanten on September 8, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Hi Lee,
    I have a question for you: do you think that when an author writes a memoir in the form of a collection of short stories written in the third person but all the facts are still correct and only names changed, that work still qualifies as a memoir or should that just be called fiction? I am in a quandry about that what to call my first work to the publishers and agents and would appreciate your thoughts, in ligt of your expertise with memoir.
    I like your writing very much. Thnk you so much for your recommendations.

    Johanna van Zanten

    • Lee Martin on September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      Hi, Johanna,

      Please forgive me for taking a while to answer your question. I’ve been on the road doing some readings. You pose an interesting question. If I understand it correctly, you’ve written a memoir in the form of a series of narratives that adopt a third-person point of view. Authors such as J.M Coetzee (YOUTH) have used the third-person pov to great effect in memoir. In your case, you’ve also changed the names of people to give the book the illusion of being fiction. I wonder whether there’s anything about your “stories” that identify them as pieces of memoir. In other words, are there conventions that we expect from memoir (a reflective voice, a plurality of self) that would identify your work as personal narrative? If so, then I’d probably label it as such? In fact, even if there aren’t those conventions, I’d be tempted to call it memoir. One of the things that I love about creative nonfiction is how the form keeps reinventing itself. I’d say call it memoir and then let others decide what to do with it. It may, in the hands of an agent or an editor, come down to marketing concerns, as in a question of whether they think it would sell better as a memoir or a book of fiction. The important thing is how you look at it. For me, memoir always allows me to claim certain experience as my own. There’s something empowering about announcing that to the world. I imagine the same would be true even if the memoir is told in the third person.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for writing.

  5. Marty White on September 25, 2011 at 9:10 pm


    I read “From Our House” a couple time as my mom and dad grew up in Sumner. My dad’s uncle was Hugh White of the famed “White’s General Store” down in Lukin Township. I loved your account of your family stopping in there one cold snowy night. And my uncle was Les Ledeker, who lived over by the train tracks and ALWAYS had bird dogs. I enjoy you writings about Southern Illinois and you bring so many memories back to life. Thanks for making home just a bit closer for us who are no longer around there.

    Marty White

    • Lee Martin on September 25, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      Hi, Marty!

      I loved Hugh’s store! It had almost anything you needed, and I remember that he usually had a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth. He was a very nice man. I remember my parents talking about Les Ledeker. In fact, when we lived in Oak Forrest, we were friends with Gladys Fulk, who lived in Hammond, IN, and her daughter Hazel (I think her last name was Batten, or Baden) who lived in the country outside Mokena, IL. Somehow, I think they were related to the Ledker’s of southern Illinois and that’s how we were friends. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. I always think of Lawrence County as home.

  6. John M. Gibson on October 4, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Lee – John Gibson here from Sumner. Really enjoyed the chowder article. I remember going to the chowders in the surrounding communities when I was a kid and I remember looking forward to it as you described. I remember playing basketball at the old Sumner school (attendence center as it was later known) with you, Bruce Jones, Buddy Lackey, Denny (nickname?!?) Nichols, the Hutch brothers, and many others. Pickup basketball was/is serious business in that part of the world.

    One question…do you remember the “bean line” starting about this time in the fall when all of the farmers would bring the beans into Zwillings grain mill? I remember visiting with folks waiting in line to unload there harvest and catching up with people I hadn’t seen for some time. The Fall Festival also seemed to coincide with the bean line. I still chuckle when I think of the story Bruce told about the time he was in college away from home and the Sumner Press arrived in its plain, brown wrapper with the letters “FFHS” written on the outside of the wrapper. A call home explained the meaning of “FFHS”…Fall Festival Huge Success.

    Sorry to ramble, just a flood of memories from reading your blog. I just found it and will keep reading. You keep writing. All the best. John M. Gibson (Mervil)

    • Lee Martin on October 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

      Hey, John,

      Good to hear from you. I certainly do remember all those pickup basketball games. In fact, I think of them often. I also recall the bean lines, and in summer the wheat lines, when the farmers were cutting wheat and bringing it to the grain elevator. I got quite a chuckle out of the “FFHS” story. Thanks so much for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment. If you ever want to write me directly, please feel free to use the email address listed on my web site. Take Care–Lee

  7. Junior Slunaker on February 7, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Thank’s for the chowder story. It still is the Saturday before Labor Day. This will be the 70th year coming. Bob Slunaker and myself are the head cooks for the last 35-36 years. Things have change over the years, everything has to be store brought. No garden produce, wild game or off the farm meats. The old days in the woods did not hurt any of us.
    There are days I remember your folks and when my dad bale hay for your dad and farmed your land. That’s be many moons ago, as we are the senior citizens now. Take care and try to make it back for the Berryville Chowder on Sept.3,2016


    PS. I’ll give you a turn at the paddle for stirring !!!!

    • Lee Martin on February 7, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      Junior, I have such fond memories of those chowders. I remember when mu uncle, Homer Read, would be down there stirring with a paddle. I’m glad to know the event still takes place, and I wish you and yours all the best.

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