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Home » FOOD AND WINE in MA » MASSACHUSETTS (all topics) » The Secret of New England Clam Chowder
New England Clam Chowder
The Secret of New England Clam Chowder

By Michael F. Bisceglia, Jr. | March 30, 2011

Mike F. Bisceglia investigates that most delicious of dishes - the New England Clam Chowder.

Discretion is the better part of valor, and New Englanders can be very discrete.   This is especially true when it comes to revealing the secret of the best clam chowder in the world.   Yes, I said it. No idle boast.   The best clam chowder in the world!

New England Clam Chowder

The word “chowder” (correctly pronounced chow-dah if you live in the most fabulous region of the United States) is a curious one.   The best guess is that it came from the French word for caldron.   Certainly, a chaudiere sounds like a properly austere item in which to brew up a batch of this mouth-watering cuisine.   Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1800), the first American Cookbook, gave the first recipe for chowder.   It called for bass, salt pork crackers and other items, but clams were nowhere to be had. By 1836, clam chowder was well known in Boston and beginning to find its way across the country.

Originally, it would seem to be another way for sailors to enjoy fish.   (What’s not to enjoy?) By the end of the century, other items were being tossed into the pot (or chaudiere, if you’re so inclined), including lots of cream and butter.   What made it especially tasty was the use of the secret ingredient.   Is your mouth watering yet?

At some point in the 1830’s, Rhode Islanders tossed tomatoes into the mix.   New Englanders, purists that we are, began associating this strain with New York.   We referred to it as “that terrible pink mixture.” They couldn’t have despised it much more if it had pinstripes.   This bastardized brew was labeled Manhattan Clam Chowder.   All right, enough about New York!

Manhattan Clam Chowder

The Great Chowder Debate raged well into the early 20th century, and reached a flash point when Mary Alice Cook published Traditional Portuguese Recipes from Provincetown in 1984.   Mary, born in 1914, claimed that her family used tomatoes in chowder when she was a girl.   Hmmm.   Interestingly, in 1939, a Maine legislator, introduced a bill to make it illegal to add tomatoes to the pot.   There was, however, no argument about the use of the secret ingredient.

Clam chowder became a New England staple, and salt pork or bacon was used consistently.   The argument about the “best” chowder and the amounts of ingredients were subjects of constant debate.   Strangely, no argument occurred when potatoes were tossed into the pot in the 1880’s. This feat was attributed to Maria Paola from Danbury, Connecticut.

By the mid 1900’s, folks up and down the East Coast, as far south as Maryland, were tossing just about everything into chowder including all sorts of vegetables and chicken! (A bird in clam chowder? Oh, please!)

Today, most folks agree that there really is no such item as a traditional New England clam chowder (except tomatoes are frowned upon).   It’s the concoction that takes the edge off a raw afternoon, or a dish savored after shoveling out from a wicked nor’easter.   It’s a New England family tradition to be handed down from one generation to the next.   That includes the use of that special ingredient.

And now... the special ingredient.   On second thought, nah, you just might go and tell a New Yorker.

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