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Adlen Robinson: All you need to know about clam chowder
Adlen Robinson

As a young child, I absolutely loved New England clam chowder. My father introduced the dish to me. He knew how much I loved pretty much every soup, so he bought a few cans of it and added some cream and heated it up.  I loved it immediately. 

When I was growing up, we didn’t eat out often. With three older brothers who all had big appetites, eating out was reserved for an occasional Sunday lunch after church. 

Red Lobster was typically the Sunday lunch place we frequented, and without fail, I ordered the New England clam chowder. Of course I loved it with those little oyster crackers.

Many years later, I heard about Manhattan clam chowder — and I remember asking my dad about it. He said it was not clam chowder — it was more akin to a tomato soup with some clams thrown in. 

How funny to learn that my dad’s description of Manhattan clam chowder was so similar to famous cookbook writer and chef James Beard’s description of the dish. 

Beard (1903-1985) described Manhattan clam chowder this way: “That rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.” 

Ouch!

I learned to cook clam chowder at a young age and that was the end of the canned stuff for me. Almost every soup in a can pales in comparison to its homemade counterpart. Clam chowder might be the best example of that fact.

I did some digging and learned some interesting clam chowder history. Where else would you get this information on a random Wednesday? You’re welcome.

So, just to be clear, New England clam chowder almost always contains the following ingredients: Clams, clam juice, celery, onions, potatoes, cream, salt, pepper and sometimes bacon. 

If you ask me, parsley is also mandatory. Food historians say it was most likely introduced to New England by French or settlers from Nova Scotia. By 1836, the chowder was well known in Boston and is sometimes referred to as “Boston clam chowder.”

So, what about Manhattan clam chowder? Well, apparently in the mid 1800s the tomato was gaining in popularity in America. 

There was a large and growing popularity of Italians in New York City and Portuguese fishing communities in Rhode Island — and those immigrants loved tomatoes. Guess what happened? Yep. Clam chowders began being made with tomatoes.

I think it’s funny that Maine and New England in general were not at all happy about this new tomato clam chowder movement. 

In case you think I am making a joke of this culinary fact, know this. In 1839, the state of Maine actually submitted bill to make it a statutory and culinary offense to put tomatoes in chowder. So, I guess silly lawmakers have been around forever.

I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit of some clam chowder history. 

Check out my food column on Friday for some clam chowder recipes and tips to make the best clam chowder in the world. 

I promise, even the Manhattan clam chowder one is delicious — it just isn’t New England’s one.


South Forsyth resident Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at adlen@adlenshomematters.com.