Clam Chowders

New England and Manhattan, side by side in harmony at Nick's on the Bay.

Historians are still grappling with the fallout—the human agony, the cultural damage, the vast fields of destruction—left by the bloody and terrible Clam Chowder War. The horrific Saving Private Ryan scenes (“The area before the house was paved with clam-shells.”)? How America’s “greatest generation” took up spoons against the mollusk threat? It’s sounds like stirring tale.

If only. 

Scholars pay more attention to that little tiff between Germany and Poland—and Britain and France, and later all of Europe and the U.S.—that broke out the same year. And, yeah, World War Two is of some importance. But to cross the no-man’s-land between New England and Manhattan clam chowder still takes guts.

Well, OK—the battle lines are really drawn more by regional pride than sinister ramparts. The people of New York and Boston just enjoy tossing little barbs each other’s way. Outside of the East Coast, clam chowder defaults to the rich, creamy broth studded with clams, bacon and potatoes claimed by New England.

The ruddy, tomato-tinted Manhattan-style chowder is even a mystery to some people.

“A lot of people ask for Manhattan, but once they see it—’it looks like minestrone,’” observes Lance Koehler, manager of the Fisherman’s Wharf spot Nick’s on the Bay. “It’s not what you think of, so I get why there’s confusion.”

For those unfamiliar, Manhattan clam chowder involves many of the same ingredients as its rival, including onions, celery and often potatoes. In place of cream, however, the broth starts with tomatoes.

Koehler added it to the menu at Nick’s in part to be different. But he also points out that it gives diners a gluten-free, dairy-free option.

Nick’s is one of the few spots in Monterey County selling both New England and Manhattan-style chowders. Most seafood restaurants stop at the cream-based version.

At Vivolo’s Chowder House in Pacific Grove, for example, the options are limited to New England-style chowder in a bread bowl, in a regular bowl or in a cup. No Manhattan for you!

“I did serve Manhattan when I first opened, but it didn’t sell,” explains Mark Davis, owner of Vivolo’s. “It’s too close to cioppino out here.”

Chef Pedro Cruz at Monterey’s Sandbar & Grill allows that he appreciates both versions, but he only prepares a New England style, with clams and clam juice, fresh thyme, leeks, garlic and other bits.

“We make big pots every two days,” he says. “People love it.”

On a busy day at Vivolo’s, Davis and his kitchen crew dole out some 80 gallons of New England clam chowder. “I’m not going to give you the recipe—lots of clams, lots of cream,” he says. “And we don’t put potatoes in it.”

As for Manhattan, Davis notes that outside of Nick’s, “you won’t find it on the Peninsula.”

So, not much of a conflict, really. It’s just like when the Red Sox and Yankees square off on national TV. Most everyone sides with Boston.

Why then did the two sides come to blows? Well, that was more of a stunt, orchestrated by a Maine politician who probably didn’t want to wrestle with real issues of the day.

New England style chowder has been around since Colonial times, adapted by European settlers to the New World (“chowder” is Anglicized from a French word for kettles used by fishermen to make stew).

“The French brought it to Quebec and it worked its way down,” Davis says. “And Boston took credit for it.” 

The soup was so common just a few decades later that Herman Melville made mention of it in Moby Dick, including that quote in the first paragraph of this week’s Burning Question. And if I’m just making that up, no one would know any better. Only five or six people have read the thing all the way through.

What we call Manhattan style probably dates back to the mid-1800s and has been attributed to Portuguese immigrants—not to New York, but rather to Rhode Island. Alton Brown of Good Eats says they adapted traditional tomato-based stews to New World circumstances. When Bostonians and other New Englanders caught wind of this, they associated it with New York more as a slur.

The Northeastern schism goes back a ways. But more on that later.

New England’s pride in their chowder may have been fueled by the arrival of an upstart. Joseph C. Lincoln, a prolific writer who lived on Cape Cod, claimed that “The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for—or on—clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle’ in a kettle.”

Surprised he didn’t add a bit about Benedict Arnold and his love for Manhattan clam chowder.

But outright war did not loom on the culinary horizon until Virginia Elliott and Robert Jones pieced together a cookbook called Soups and Sauces, that came out in 1934. Not only was it good timing on their part—soup lines were all the rage in the '30s—but also the book contained the first known published recipe for “Manhattan” clam chowder.

Incensed by the gall of New Yorkers to sully the good name of chowder, a state representative in Maine by the name of Cleveland Sleeper—worst “what’s your porn star name” ever, by the way—sought to make the act of adding tomato to chowder a felony.

Well, maybe not a felony. But according to records at the New England Historical Society, he did prepare a facetious bill to make tomato-based chowder a crime.

Fortunately, Neville Chamberlain stepped in...No. Didn’t happen. Chamberlain’s brand of appeasement was on the outs by 1939. And since the United Nations wouldn’t come into existence for a few more years, it fell upon the Maine Hotel Association to find a peaceful solution.

Yep. The first ever chowder throwdown.

No Bobby Flay back then, so they brought a chef from Maine to stir up some New England-style chowder and one from Philadelphia—something tells me the contest was rigged—to make Manhattan’s version. The judges included Maine’s governor, Lewis Barrows along with one of history’s true culinary superstars, Ruth Wakefield.

Yes, you do know her. She invented the Tollhouse—or chocolate chip—cookie.

With stakes this high, the press was all over the contest. The Associated Press had a reporter imbedded with the opposing forces and reported on the scuffles leading up to the contest. “For weeks the differing schools of chowder thought had argued the merits or demerits of clam chowder with and without tomatoes,” one story read. Sends shudders down the spine.

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And in a blow-by-blow account of the throwdown itself, the AP said one of the judges, Arthur L. Race (who just happened to be from Boston) “observed that the Manhattan should be dubbed ‘Tomato a la Clam’ and that the clam was merely an intruder in a good tomato soup.”

It was a slaughter. The judges were unanimous in favor of New England style.

And it was an august group of judges. In addition to Wakefield, Barrows and Race, the panel included Paul Mack-Hale, president of the Boston Stewards Club, Joseph Mart, president of the Epicurean Club of Boston, Willard Davis, a Boston-based publisher of restaurant periodicals, along with two others with no hometown listed but likely from somewhere in New England.

I still get the feeling the whole thing was rigged.

Ever since the Clam Chowder War, Manhattan style has been on the defensive. In her 1940 publication A New England Sampler, Eleanor Early observed “There is a terrible pink mixture...called Manhattan Clam Chowder, that is only a vegetable soup, and not to be confused with New England Clam Chowder, nor spoken of in the same breath.”

None other than chef James Beard would join in, lobbing this volley at New York: “That rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder...resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.”

“I don’t even understand how Manhattan clam chowder continues to be a food,” senior editor Amy DiLuna said when the Today Show weighed into the fray. “Unless it’s a bloody Mary, please keep your tomatoes away from my clams.”

It gets vicious out there.

Hell, even in Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook, she tells the tragic story of the grandson of a man who claimed to have invented Manhattan clam chowder. She wrote that Austin Phelps Winters “believed his grandfather’s was a heinous act” and he was haunted by the family association: “How do you tell your children that they are the progeny of the self-proclaimed inventor of Manhattan clam chowder?”

Being linked to the tomato-based chowder caused even more shame than his grandfather’s close ties to the crooked Tammany Hall political machine. Ouch.

But hang on a moment. Maybe—just maybe—New York is really innocent in this whole matter.

Remember what Alton Brown said? Well, John Mariani, famed restaurant critic and author of Dictionary of American Food & Drink, also blamed Rhode Island chefs for foisting tomatoes on the all-American (and French Canadian) chowder. The practice, he wrote, “brought down unremitting scorn from chowder fanciers from Massachusetts to Maine.” Given their general wariness toward New York, residents determined that only those from the big city were ignorant enough to do such a thing. Hence, they pointed fingers at Manhattan.

Rhode Island does indeed favor a red, tomato-based chowder (as well as a clear broth version). And it, too, has haters. Take this bit from a longer diatribe by former SB Nation Major League Baseball writer Whitney McIntosh, which she filed as a baseball story: “I’m here to tell you that Rhode Island clam chowder isn’t actually clam chowder. It’s all a lie. It’s always been a lie...Rhode Island has been lying about its chowder offering for what I can only assume has been centuries now.”

And you thought we were in a post-chowderal society. Just wait until Trump tweets his opinion.

New England or Manhattan? That’s been settled, perhaps somewhat dubiously. Now we have to worry about other chowder wars flaring up. Sooner or later, New England will take on Hatteras clam chowder, Long Island clam chowder, Minorcan clam chowder...although they might want to leave that one alone. It’s spiked with the feared datil chili.

The prospect should leave Nick’s on the Bay’s Koehler quaking, because he’s created a California chowder.

“I’m a New England guy,” he admits. “But the California chowder with corn and crab—it’s a close second."

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