The History of Clam Chowder: A New England Tradition
A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for–or on–clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle in a kettle.’
– Joseph C. Lincoln (1870-1944)
People come from all over the world just to experience an autumn in Massachusetts. They come hoping to see the colorful foliage of the season and end up leaving with much more: exposure to New England culture, a tour of the birthplace of early American history and a taste for our world-renowned chowders. There’s something about sitting down to meal of comfort food this time of year that just warms your bones and makes everything feel right with the world.
Potato, Potatoe… Tomato, Tomatoe
The most well-known type of clam chowder from Boston to San Francisco, is what is known as New England Clam Chowder. Known also in some states as “Boston Chowder,” this cream-based chowder contains potatoes and onions. Adding tomatoes to clam chowder is strongly discouraged in some part of the northeast. In fact, in 1939 a bill was introduced into legislature in the state of Maine that would make the use of tomatoes in clam chowder against the law.
However, there are a couple of different ways to make chowder that are worth mentioning. Most of these varieties tend to exist based upon the argument of whether to add potatoes or tomatoes – or not.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Featuring a clear broth that includes tomato to add extra flavor and coloring, this particular variety has been spotted in historical accounts and cookbooks since the 1890s. Also known as Fulton Fish Market Clam Chowder and New York Clam Chowder, the title of Manhattan wasn’t added until the 1930s. Legend has it that the title of “Manhattan-style” was given by New Englanders who disapproved of this take on their local dish, tying it in with the insult of calling someone a New Yorker.
Rhode Island’s Clam Chowders
Originating in the southern fishing and beach areas of Rhode Island, the traditional version of chowder that is served in this state is known as South County Style. A different take than the cream-based or tomato-based chowders seen in other parts of the region, this recipe features a clear broth. It is still served along the southern coastal area of the state. Preferred by the natives, this chowder contains a mixture of bacon, onions, potatoes, broth and quahogs.
Many of the restaurants in the northern region of Rhode Island will sell both the cream-based and tomato-based versions. However, the clear variety can be found in restaurants and hotels on Block Island and in other local establishments. Another type of chowder is also served in Rhode Island that is a sort of hybrid between the clear and the Manhattan tomato-based variety. It is made with a tomato broth base and potatoes, but doesn’t feature any other vegetables.
Long Island Clam Chowder
Some call it the best of both worlds, but most New Englanders just shake their heads. In Long Island they serve a chowder that is a combination of the tomato-based Manhattan-style chowder and the cream-based traditional New England-style chowder, which results in a creamy tomato-based clam chowder. It gets its name due to the fact that Long Island is smack dab in the middle of New England and Manhattan, much like the chowder itself.
Clam Chowder Outside the Northeastern States
Many other states and regions have attempted to establish their unique take on this popular dish. In North Carolina, for example, they start with a clear broth like the Rhode Island variety, and add potatoes, bacon and onions in with the clams. They use flour to thicken the mixture and add a combination of different spices and seasonings, such as green onions, hot sauce and white or black pepper to add some heat and kick.
In California, the city of San Francisco has built a reputation with its tourists for serving a traditional cream-based New England style chowder inside a popular west coast vehicle. The now-famous chowder-in-a-sourdough-bread-bowl has been served en masse to tourists since 1849. Just north of the wharf in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, the smoked pork is replaced with a local favorite: smoked salmon.
Where to Find Authentic New England Clam Chowder
It has been said that if you truly want to try a traditional clam chowder, the only way to do it is to try a bowl in New England where they adhere to the authentic recipe. You can find Yankee Clam Chowder featured on the menu at Persy’s Place, which has 8 locations throughout Massachusetts and a brand new diner located in East Providence.
Persy’s clam chowder is cooked in the traditional-style with hand-shucked clams in a rich roux that has been thickened with a combination of light cream, fish stock, potatoes, sauteed onions and rendered salt pork. You can try the chowder by the cup or the bowl with fishcakes, a favorite side dish. Using the same original recipe for over 30 years, Persy’s pan fries their fish cakes in a healthy blend of olive oil, giving you all that amazing “fried” flavor – without all the guilt.