How can you tell the difference between a bisque and a chowder? A soup and a stew? Sometimes the difference is very subtle and confounds even the experts.

Soups have been around since prehistoric times. All that was needed was a waterproof container, a meat or grain and a fire. The word soup has come down to us from the Latin "suppa" which was a piece of bread soaked in broth.

Modern American may think of only one kind of soup, though... Campbell's! Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist with the Campbell's Soup Company, invented condensed soup in 1897. And three of Campbell's soups are still our favorites, Tomato, Cream of Mushroom, and of course, Chicken Noodle.

But for those of you with an inquiring mind, below I have listed the different edible liquids and what distinguishes each. Food for thought!

A broth is simply a liquid in which meat, fish, grains or vegetables have been simmered. It is often the starting point for other edible liquids such as soups or gravies. The difference between a broth and a stock is that by definition a broth is made from the more palatable portions of food, so it is richer and more nourishing than a stock.
When you speak of a consommé, you are talking about a broth that has been subjected to some clarification. Often egg whites are used. They will be boiled in the broth and coagulate the sediment. The key to a good consommé is simmering. Prolonged simmering and frequent stirring will bring the sediment ot the top. Soon the particles will begin to congeal on the surface forming what is called a raft. Once the raft is removed, simmering continues for another 45 minutes to an hour. The result is a pale, clear but tasty liquid.
A bisque is a thick, creamy soup that traditionally is made from puréed shell fish. There are several legends as to how it got its name, but most likely it comes from the French words "bis cuites" meaning twice cooked, incidentally the same origins as the word biscuit. In order to extract every bit of flavor, even the shells of the fish were kept, ground into a thick paste and then added back into the bisque. Now many chefs will garnish their bisques with flaked meat to add color and texture.
The broad range of soups that use flour as a thickening agent are called chowders. To most Americans it means clam chowder, either New England with a cream base, or the tomato based Manhattan style. The term comes from the French word "chaudiere" the pot in which the chowder was cooked. The main ingredient of a chowder can range widely, from corn to clams.
Cream is a variety of soups that have been thickened with a white sauce, most notably bechamel, which is scalded milk whipped into a flour butter mixture (or roux). They can be enjoyed on their own, but are also found in condensed form and added to flavor meats and vegetables.
Gumbo falls under the soup or stew category as well. It originated in Louisiana and consists of a strong stock of meat or fish, a thickener (filé powder from the sassfras tree) and vegetables. A gumbo is traditionally served over rice. Historically, okra and filé powder are not added to the same gumbo. A roux of butter and flour is better at removing the "slimey" effect of the okra.
A stew is made from solid ingredients that have been cooked in a liquid (water, broth, wine, beer) and then served in the resulting gravy. Again the range of ingredients and styles varies enormously. Stewing is a great way to serve less tender cuts of meat. The slow cooking method tenderizes the meat and the lower temperature allows the flavors to combine. It is often difficult to tell soups and stews apart. Generally, stews contain less liquid.
A purée is applied to any food, usually vegetables or legumes, that have been mashed, pressed and strained. The result is a soft paste. Mashed potatoes is a purée, as is apple sauce. They often resemble soups or gravies and are separated merely by the lack of additional ingredients, and more complex cooking processes.
Gravy falls under the category of sauces. It is made from the juices of meat or vegetables after they have been cooked. Gravies are often colored and flavored with additional ingredients such as caramel food coloring and salt. There are many types of gravies but almost all start with a flour and butter mixture called a roux. They are thickened with starch (again flour, or corn starch). A good gravy requires a lot of attention. Continuous stirring is required to keep the starch from clumping.