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Stirring the Chowder Pot

With three types of clam chowder—Manhattan, New England, and Rhode Island—in a contentious rivalry, we take the stance that they’re all good.

Fine Cooking Issue 119
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I’ve been somewhat of a clam-addict since childhood, when I would dig for them on Puget Sound with my grandfather. I like them steamed, grilled, stuffed and baked, or slurped raw, but my favorite way to enjoy them is in a steamy bowl of chowder. A soup defined by its heartiness, chowder is laden with chunks of potatoes and studded with bacon or salt pork and onions. From that base three very different styles of clam chowder have emerged, and connoisseurs from Rhode Island, the rest of New England, and Manhattan have been arguing over which is best for nearly a century.

Each chowder has a different character New England–style chowder is the thick, creamy version that most people know. During the dark, cold days of winter, I look to this rich soup for comfort. Tomato-based Manhattan chowder has an acidic tang to balance the sweet, salty clams. Rhode Island–style chowder is the least common but, in my opinion, the purest. It’s a thinner soup in which the clam broth contributes most of the flavor and the tender clam meat adds texture. But as long as chowder is made with plump, seawater-fresh clams and served with crispy crackers alongside a Caesar salad (and maybe a Bloody Mary), I’ll happily eat any of the three.

Let the clam flavor shine through Over the years, I’ve picked up a few secrets for making a good clam chowder, regardless of variety. It’s key to start with fresh live clams and plenty of them. The trick to ensuring that they don’t get rubbery is to steam them in the shell and pluck them from the heat the instant they open, so they’re not one second overcooked. This method also eliminates the need for shucking and creates a delicate, briny broth that becomes the backbone of the soup. Onions, bacon, and Yukon Gold potatoes—which hold their shape and firmness while also releasing some starch to thicken the broth—add complexity and texture without overshadowing the clams. Try the recipes that follow and I bet you’ll love all three as much as I do. Let’s put an end to this rivalry once and for all.

A Brief History of Chowder Chowder probably evolved as a way to make two fishing boat staples—salt pork and hardtack (a flat, rigid cracker made of only flour and water)—more palatable by adding fresh fish and water. Since fresh water was precious aboard ships, the original dish was most likely a very thick stew rather than a soup. The Boston Evening Post published the first written chowder recipe in 1751, a layered fish dish with onions, salt pork, pepper, salt, spices, herbs, hardtack, red wine, and water. Clams made occasional appearances in chowder recipes during the first half of the 19th century and gained popularity in the latter half. Around that time, bacon began to be substituted for salt pork, and hardtack was phased out in favor of potatoes. It was a few decades later that the various regional incarnations began to take shape.

Find the Freshest Clams The recipes here call for cherrystones, which are medium-size hard-shell clams, but traditionally, chowder uses quahogs, which are larger. Since the two types are often very close in size, I use whichever is fresher at the market, and I always purchase clams from a store with high turnover. Since they’re alive, they’ll eventually open up in search of more food and lose their precious seawater, so look for closed shells that are not broken. Clams should be packed in a mesh bag or an unsealed plastic bag. Steam them as soon as possible after buying them.

New England Clam Chowder

Comfort in a Bowl Creamy, hearty New England clam chowder is by far the most popular. Chowder made with milk or cream began appearing in the early 1800s, and New Englanders claimed it as their own in the 1900s. More recently, it has become common for chefs to use a flour and butter roux to thicken the soup. The roux is necessary if you’re cooking with milk; otherwise, it curdles when boiled. I have a slightly different method: I purée some of the ingredients. This, combined with adding cream, creates a thick soup without flour. You can crush some of the potatoes against the side of the pot (instead of puréeing the vegetables) for a thinner but equally delicious version.

New England Clam Chowder

Manhattan clam chowder

You Say Tomato… Manhattan clam chowder contains tomatoes, an addition likely influenced by the tomato-based fish and clam soups of Mediterranean fishing communities. In 1894, the chef of Delmonico’s steakhouse in New York published a cookbook with a recipe for a tomato-based clam chowder, which is probably what grounded it in Manhattan; at various points in chowder history it was found in Boston and Rhode Island. In the 20th century, the soup began to offend New England chowder purists; In 1939, Maine introduced legislation to prohibit the use of tomatoes in clam chowder. James Beard is quoted as saying, “that rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder… resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.” My opinion is that the tomatoes really complement the smoky bacon and salty clams, and the lack of milk or cream makes it lighter than its New England counterpart.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

A Clear Original This thin, clear-broth chowder is the least common but also the closest to the earliest types of chowder. There’s surprisingly little speculation or written history about this soup’s origins and when it branched off from its more popular  cousins. Even in Rhode Island, it’s often served alongside the more familiar New England and sometimes Manhattan chowders. Still, in my opinion, it really captures the essence of clam chowder, containing neither dairy nor tomatoes to mask the fresh sea flavors.

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

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