Seasons by the Sea: Chowders: Red, White, and Alt

Clam chowder is one of those subjects that can never be discussed lightly.
A variety of clam knives David E. Rattray

People sure do have strong opinions about chowders. Should it be New England, Manhattan, Long Island, Rhode Island, or, as our esteemed editor suggested, “alt-chowder,” in other words, allowing for substitutions, additions, creativity?

In Louis De Gouy’s 1949 cookbook, “The Soup Book,” he said, “Clam chowder is one of those subjects, like politics and religion, that can never be discussed lightly. Bring it up even incidentally, and all the innumerable factions of the clambake regions raise their heads and begin to yammer.”

A Maine politician once claimed (I don’t know when, but it sounds very McCarthy era) that the addition of tomatoes to chowder was “the work of the reds” who seek to undermine “our most hallowed tradition” and suggested that any housewives or chefs caught adding tomatoes be forced to “dig a barrel of clams at high tide as penalty.” Ha ha.

Manhattan clam chowder, which has a clear broth with tomatoes, carrots, celery, and onions, has been found in cookbooks going back to the 1890s. The title “Manhattan” was supposedly given by New Englanders as it was an insult to call someone a New Yorker.

Rhode Island clam chowder, also known as South County style, has a clear broth, along with bacon, onions, potatoes, and quahogs. Some are a hybrid with a tomato broth base.

Long Island clam chowder can also be a hybrid, tomato and cream based.

New England clam chowder is loosely defined as a thick chowder made from clams, potatoes, onions, sometimes salt pork or bacon, and milk or cream. It can be further thickened with oyster crackers.

Although the author of 47 books about Cape Cod, Joseph C. Lincoln, referred to New England clam chowder as “Yankee Doodle in a kettle,” it probably originated with Breton fishermen who migrated south to New England from Newfoundland. The word “chowder” is believed to be derived from the French word “chaudiere,” roughly translated to pot or boiler.

For the past six or so years I have had the honor of being a judge at the Montauk Chamber of Commerce’s chowder contest — Oct. 6, mark your calendars! The chowders are provided by local restaurants; judges make their choices, and the people choose their favorites, too. At first the two varieties, Manhattan and New England, were lumped together. Now they are in separate categories, and approximately 30 to 40 restaurants participate, with New England being the predominant variety offered. I’ve often thought (well, actually, loudly suggested) that there should be a third category for most original or most unique, because some of them don’t quite fall into a classic definition of either, but they are exquisite soups — the alt-chowders.

For instance, David E. Rattray told me about a chowder he made recently for his friend Jameson Ellis’s birthday. Based on a Sam Sifton recipe. He eliminated the dairy (folks could add it later), used leeks in lieu of onions, added rosé, and substituted smoked bluefish for the bacon. Mind blown. This genius substitution made his chowder close to the Scot’s broth “cullen skink.”

For other creative additions and variations on chowder I turned to my Department of Slothful Research, Facebook. Most people are adamant about preferring New England over Manhattan, myself among them.

Ellen White suggested a touch of Old Bay seasoning in either variety. Sydney Jones recommended Jarlsberg cheese and sherry in New England. Jeremy Blutstein, who never lacks for strong opinions, declared Manhattan “whack.” 

Chef Peter Ambrose had some outstanding suggestions. He has made a New Mexican version with andouille sausage, hard clams, belly clams, sweet potatoes, and Mexican spices. He also has made a New-England-style chowder with coconut milk and Thai red curry spice. He uses chipotle peppers as a substitute for pork and said that a drop of booze like Lillet is a great addition. These are exactly the kinds of variations that deserve their own category.

Naturally, you can find great chowders at many restaurants out here. Some recommended by those in the know are at Bostwick’s, the Quiet Clam, and Silver’s.

To put you in the mood in this first month of “Rs”, here are two recipes for your Yankee Doodle in a kettle. One is Mr. Rattray’s, the other from Lisa Kristel, an owner of South Edison in Montauk. This chowder won the people’s choice award at the Montauk contest in 2010.

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