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Clam Chowder. New England, Manhattan, or...?

National Clam Chowder Day is February 25

February 18th, 2019 12:00 PM

Manhattan Clam Chowder from Carnivore, photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

If you see clam chowder on a menu, the likelihood is high that what's being offered is New England, or Maine, clam chowder, white and creamy.

Me, I prefer "the other" clam chowder, Manhattan, with a clear broth, tomatoes and herbs. I prefer not to have New England clam chowder for the same reason I prefer not to have fettucine Alfredo: too rich and usually gloppy.

New England clam chowder is creamy, and people tend to like the mouthfeel of foods that are creamy. I respect that. I suspect, though, there are other motives behind the prevalence of the white chowder on menus.

1.    Some will argue that New England clam chowder is the more "authentic" of the two chowders. The argument that one type of chowder is more "authentic" than any other is very difficult to prove, given the long and varied history of dishes called "chowder."

2.    People have had bad impressions of New York, claiming the residents are brusque and unfriendly. They are not, but the stereotype contaminates the appreciation of anything associated with Manhattan, including the chowder. Unfair.

3.    Perhaps the prevalence of the creamy version is because it's easier for restaurants to hide substandard ingredients beneath an opaque surface. Got a discolored potato? A funky clam. Throw 'em in the creamy soup. No one will notice (probably).

Here's why I prefer Manhattan clam chowder: 

1.    The flavors are cleaner in Manhattan clam chowder. The broth, herbs, tomatoes and clams themselves are not covered in a blanket of goo: they're glistening just below the surface, they look enticing and neither their appearance nor their flavor is obscured by creaminess.

2.    Never one to shun deliciousness on account of calories, I still prefer to eat lighter, especially when it comes to seafood. New England clam chowder contains dairy, which usually means more calories in every spoonful.

3.    I'm an Italian-American. We Italians love tomatoes, an indigenous product of the Americas. I consider eating a tomato-based soup almost a patriotic duty.

Of course, in this big wonderful food world we live in, you don't have to choose between just two varieties of clam chowder. Rhode Island clam chowder contains no cream and no tomatoes, just the clams, potatoes and maybe other vegetables. Hatteras clam chowder also contains no cream or tomatoes – it's basically just clams in broth, which seems kind of sad. Minorcan clam chowder originated in Florida; it's tomato-based broth perked up with datil chili pepper; spicy.

The upstart Long Island clam chowder tries to balance and reconcile the yin/yang and white/red of New England and Manhattan chowders. Long Island clam chowder is built on a creamy tomato broth.

The most prevalent clam chowder on restaurant menus seems to be the creamy New England style, but here and there, you can find the Manhattan variety. One of the best versions of Manhattan clam chowder I've found in Oak Park is in the freezer cabinet at Carnivore; it's light and tasty, with good herbal flavors and just a touch of chili heat.

National Clam Chowder Day is February 25. Why don't you celebrate by having a type of clam chowder you've never had before.