Dick Varano, owner of Billy’s Chowder House in Wells, with a bowl of the restaurant’s New England style clam chowder. The debate about which style chowder is best rages on. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I still remember the worst clam chowder I’ve ever had. For years, I was a judge at Portland’s Great Chili and Chowder Challenge at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, an annual February fundraiser that, even during snowstorms, drew large crowds of chowder lovers eager to taste chowders of all kinds prepared by Portland chefs. We sampled a lot of wonderful steamy, creamy, classic New England chowders, but the one I remember best had the consistency of wallpaper paste. The “broth” was gluey and tasted more like the flour it had been thickened with than freshly dug clams.

Stick to my ribs? Well, it definitely stuck to the roof of my mouth. The other judges (some of them chefs) and I looked at each other with our scrunched-up “what the heck is this abomination?” faces, gave it a low score, and moved on. But chowder is personal. The “thick” chowder fans who believe the spoon should stand up in the bowl might well have loved it.

I learned a lot in those years about my own preferences and what, objectively, makes a good chowder. Balance is important. You shouldn’t have to go on a treasure hunt through a sea of potatoes to find the clams. A little thyme is OK, but not too much. A bit of butter or rendered bacon fat adds flavor and richness, but too much and you end up with a heart-stopping slick of fat on top. And, yes, when it comes to broth I’m in the thinner-is-better camp.

Here in Maine, we love our creamy New England clam chowder, a bowl of comfort as warming as the sunlight on the snowbanks outside our windows. But New Yorkers prefer their chowder Manhattan style, with a tomato base. (Except for James Beard, who called it “a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.”) Rhode Islanders swear by a clear broth chowder that they say brings out the briny flavor of the clams and the sea they came from – and is closer to the version fishermen and Native Americans used to make.

Jonathan Chase, a retired chef from Blue Hill, grew up eating all three “but on a snowbound day, I don’t think anything beats a New England clam chowder, especially when you’re cooped up in the house and get all the great smells from cooking the bacon and making the chowder.”

Chase’s clam chowder recipe, published in “Saltwater Seasonings,” a cookbook he wrote three decades ago with his sister Sarah Leah Chase, was for years my go-to, although I cooked the bacon with the celery and onions instead of sprinkling it on top – a step Chase now endorses because the bacon flavor permeates the chowder. He also suggests using a combination of potato varieties.

“Every once in a while I’ll sneak a couple of russet potatoes, which are very starchy and kind of disintegrate,” he said. “They act as a thickener and give some nice potato flavor to it. I like to use an all-purpose potato to maintain texture, but to get that creaminess without adding too much more fat, I think a russet potato is a pretty good cheat.”

As for texture, Chase says the broth should run smoothly off the spoon, as with potato-leek soup. He uses a combination of evaporated milk and half-and-half to achieve that.

Everyone has an opinion about chowder based on which they were raised on, and their own preferences. Thick or thin? Tomatoes or no tomatoes? Bacon or salt pork, or no pork at all? Steamers or quahogs? Flour or no flour? Whole milk, evaporated milk, half and half, or cream?

“Seriously, I’ve seen fistfights break out over who has the best chowder,” said Dave Mallari, chef/owner of The Sinful Kitchen in Portland and a native Rhode Islander, where you’ll find at least two out of the three regional chowders served in some restaurants.

So, is there such a thing as an authentic clam chowder?

“I think the most authentic ones are brothy,” said Maine food historian Sandra Oliver, who lives on Islesboro. “They might have milk in them, but they’re still more brothy than not. You don’t thicken the broth. You don’t add flour. You don’t add cornstarch.”

Floyd “Julio” Thomas, head chef at Billy’s Chowder House in Wells, readies its New England style clam chowder. He’ll add the milk and cream next. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Chef Dick Varano, the owner of Billy’s Chowder House in Wells, has served clam chowder made from the same recipe for 31 years. Billy’s chowder, which has won a lot of local contests, consists of chopped clams, potatoes and onions swimming in a broth of butter, milk and heavy cream. You won’t find any pork or pork fat. Varano thinks adding an ingredient like salt pork or smoked bacon is unfair to diners who can’t eat pork but still want to try a good New England chowder. (His clam chowder is two to three times more popular than the restaurant’s lobster stew or haddock chowder.) He views clam chowder the way he views Italian food – it’s all about the quality, not the number, of ingredients.

“We make traditional chowder,” Varano said. “We don’t put any flour or roux into our chowder. Unfortunately, we also get a lot of hits on Tripadvisor where people say our chowder is watery. It’s not watery. It’s real chowder.”

While Native Americans had their own versions of fish and clam soups long before European settlers arrived, the earliest European chowders fed the men who worked on fishing vessels, Oliver said, and were made of fish, water, salt pork, and maybe an onion. No potatoes, no milk. They were thickened with hard tack, a cracker made of flour and water that was a staple on long sea voyages. Floating in chowder, the crackers plumped up like dumplings, making them easier to eat.

“Potatoes were introduced into New England early on, around the early 1600s, so they could have been in chowders earlier than many think,” Jack Chiaro, an associate professor in the College of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, wrote in an e-mail interview. Recipes for early chowders are not easy to find, or simply did not exist, he said.

“You will find virtually no recipes for chowder, or soups for that matter, written in many early cookbooks because soup was not considered a gentrified dish until the Victorian era,” Chiaro said. “Amelia Simmons has none in what is considered the first American cookbook (published in 1796), but she includes it in later versions.”

Clams also came later to chowder. As a food, they were poorly regarded until the late 19th or early 20th century, Oliver said; she’s seen references to fishermen digging up clams to use as bait. Chiaro said that the “Jennie June’s American Cookery Book,” published in the 1870s, mentions clam chowder using soft-shell clams. Until the mid-1800s, only invalids ate chowder made with milk, according to Oliver. Chiaro has seen a reference to milk in chowder from 1869. But, he said, the author of that book also noted “that the best chowder ever tasted was made with tomatoes by Harlem River fishermen. I can see how ‘Manhattan’ became synonymous with tomato chowders.”

The Union Oyster House in Boston, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the United States, offered a cream chowder in the 1830s, Chiaro said, and it became known as Boston chowder.

Rhode Islanders still call creamy clam chowder Boston chowder. But their hearts belong to Rhode Island clam chowder with its clear broth.

“Rhode Island chowder doesn’t have any flour in it, so there’s not a roux,” explains Jane Bitto, whose family owns Evelyn’s Drive-In, a roadside clam shack in Tiverton, Rhode Island, that has been in business for more than 50 years and sells both Rhode Island and New England clam chowder. “In this day and age, it’s probably a healthier version of the chowder, but you really notice the flavor when you’re not having all that heavy cream and thickness. You really notice the flavor of the clams.”

Rhode Island chowder traditionally called for hard-shell clams known as quahogs. Bitto said when her family bought Evelyn’s 33 years ago, they ground quahogs for the chowder themselves. Minced quahogs, she said, are “loaded with flavor” but tend to cook off in chowder “and you don’t see the quahog meat.” They eventually switched to chopped clams of a different kind. The chowder contains no bacon or salt pork. The ingredients are just clams, clam broth, butter, potatoes, salt and pepper, and bay leaf. “It’s definitely an old-fashioned recipe,” Bitto said.

Today, this version is most likely to be found in the restaurants and beach communities of South County, Rhode Island, both Chiaro and Mallari said.

“Growing up in Rhode Island, there was always a great connection between visiting the beaches and the foods we would eat during those visits,” said Chiaro, who has fond memories of family vacations where he ate clear clam chowder and “stuffies,” or stuffed clams. “That could be one reason why the clear version of chowder has hung on so long in Rhode Island. Food and culture are inseparable, and people now associate eating chowder with going out, being on vacation, celebrating our history, or just something that reminds us of leisure time on the Rhode Island seashore.”

That’s the case for Mallari, who grew up in northern Rhode Island, eating mostly creamy Boston clam chowder. But in summer he’d go to Rocky Point Amusement Park on Narragansett Bay, in Warwick, where a huge shore dinner hall fed hungry students on field trips with cauldrons of tomato-based clam chowder, crackers and clam cakes. Mallari calls that chowder, which contained tomato puree, Manhattan-style, but also noted that the area was home to Portuguese immigrants who also added chopped tomatoes or tomato puree to chowder. Chiaro says that these immigrants, who worked in the fishing industry and in local factories, made both clear and tomato-based chowder. Rocky Point’s tomato clam chowder, he said, was “the most famous chowder in Rhode Island.”

To this day, Mallari says, when he makes chowder at home it is a Rocky Point-inspired version. He reserves the creamy Boston chowder for the cold winter months. He finds clear chowder too briny.

The debate over which chowder is better – New England or Manhattan-style – goes back decades. In 1939, Maine lawmaker Cleveland Sleeper introduced a bill that would have made it a crime to add tomatoes to clam chowder. The suggested punishment? Digging a barrel of clams at high tide.

Written by Anna Crowley Redding, Illustrated by Vita Lane. Islandport Press, October, 2020. $17.95 Cover photo courtesy of Anna Crowley Redding

Anna Crowley Redding, a journalist and author who lives in Cape Elizabeth, learned about Sleeper’s proposed law from a blurb in a New England Historical Society newsletter. She says the story triggered a childhood memory of going out to dinner with her father at a nice restaurant. “I can remember ordering clam chowder, which was my favorite soup,” she recalled, “and to my horror, the waiter brought something red to the table, and I burst into tears.”

Redding figured all children are prone to such gut-level reactions to food, so she recently wrote a children’s book about the law called “Chowder Rules: The True Story of an Epic Food Fight,” with lots of cute, colorful illustrations by Vita Lane.

The proposed chowder law, Redding says, made national news.

“There were even headlines in California,” she said. “It was a really big deal. In Iowa, they actually ran an editorial because their main agricultural product was tomatoes. They had an editorial about how the government should not be dictating what people could and could not put into their chowder pot.”

Sleeper even debated New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio on a Boston radio station. DiMaggio served Manhattan-style clam chowder at his San Francisco restaurant, Redding said.

The story ends with Harry Tully, a Philadelphia restaurateur, challenging Sleeper to a cook-off at Portland’s luxurious Lafayette Hotel on Congress Street (now an apartment building and the home of the Sagamore Hill Lounge). The judges included Maine Gov. Lewis O. Barrows and Ruth Wakefield, the woman who invented the chocolate chip cookie.

New England clam chowder prevailed. Redding includes the winning recipe in her book.

But don’t fret, Manhattan chowder lovers. There’s room at the table for you, too. Varano, who prefers creamy chowder, says he wouldn’t turn up his nose at Manhattan-style if he were dining in a restaurant in New York that was known for it. His brother, he notes, lives in Cape Cod and goes clamming all the time. He puts kielbasa in his chowder along with the clams, and “it’s good. It’s really good.”

“There’s no right or wrong,” Varano said. “If people like it, it’s good. Appreciate where you are, and what the style is, and enjoy it for what it is.”

Blue Ribbon New England Clam Chowder

This is the recipe that won the 1939 Portland cook-off pitting New England clam chowder against Manhattan clam chowder, a contest Anna Crowley Redding wrote about in “Chowder Rules!” She wasn’t able to find instructions, only a list of ingredients, so she asked Portland chef Trent Seib to write those. (Seib also added 2 tablespoons of olive oil to cook the salt pork.) “It really is so comforting,” Redding said. “And the kids ate it, so that’s another win.” The Manhattan-style challenger, Redding wrote in her children’s book, was made with out-of-state clams, gallons of tomatoes and water, green peppers, celery, leeks, black pepper, cayenne pepper, thyme, ketchup, parsley and sweet marjoram.

Serves 6-8 

8 good-sized potatoes
2 quarts clam broth
1 pound salt pork
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 medium-sized onions
6 ounces butter
2 quarts Maine clams
1 quart milk
Salt and pepper

Dice the potatoes and cover them in clam broth in a large pot. Bring to a boil and cook until soft. Dice salt pork to medium size. Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté for 6 to 8 minutes. Dice onions to medium size. In another large pot, melt the butter and add the onions, cooking until the onions are translucent. Add the clams and milk. Bring to a boil. Gently add the cooked potatoes, clam broth and pork. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Chef Dave’s Rocky Point Clam Chowder 

This tomato-based chowder is a favorite of Dave Mallari, chef/owner of The Sinful Kitchen in Portland and a native Rhode Islander who grew up eating it at the Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick. It’s his chowder of choice during the warmer months. In winter, he prefers creamy New England clam chowder.

Serves 10-12

1½ pounds bacon, chopped into small pieces
1 onion, chopped
1 gallon clam broth
3 pounds potatoes, diced
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
Old Bay seasoning, to taste
2 (29-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 ½ quarts chopped quahogs or other clams

In a large stockpot, sauté the bacon until slightly browned. Add the chopped onions, and cook on low heat until very soft. Add the broth, potatoes, paprika, salt and pepper, Old Bay, tomato puree, and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then drop to a simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 12 minutes.  Add the quahogs or other clams and simmer the chowder for at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

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