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On the hunt for Manhattan clam chowder

The other clam chowder Manhattan clam chowder for food. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

The other clam chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, for food. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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When I lamented in a Detective column this spring about the mysterious disappearance of Manhattan clam chowder (the one with tomato-based broth; not the creamy one), I had no idea I’d be unleashing a raging storm of support.

Throughout Chicagoland, ardent fans of Manhattan clam chowder rose up as one in support of this tangier, lighter version of the clammy creation. They were concerned that this simple soup was not getting the respect and attention it deserved, and more importantly, they were downright peeved it’s not included on more local menus.

Here are just a few of the plaintive missives received regarding the inexplicable absence of Manhattan clam chowder in Chicagoland:

“I thought I was all alone on this one. I’ve been looking for Manhattan clam chowder for years.”

“My sentiments exactly!!! I prefer Manhattan far above New England and almost never find it offered. There’s not a better soup than a spicy, Manhattan clam chowder.”

“How do I join the cause? It is almost a crisis that it’s hard to find the healthier chowder!”

Almost a crisis? Agreed!

Readers sent us information about Chicagoland locations where Manhattan clam chowder is available : Stimac’s (4843 Butterfield Road) in Hillside, Joe’s Seafood (10 E. Grand) and Mariano’s Fresh Market stores (various locations).

Clearly there’s a passion out there for the “other” clam chowder.

Detractors from the start

Chowders were developed by people who live near fish, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s origin to somewhere on the coast of France. The use of salt pork and soda crackers in many recipes is likely attributable to the fact that these two ingredients, which kept well for long periods — along with fish — were common among seafaring people.

The first published recipe for chowder — in rhyme, no less — appeared in the Boston Evening Post on Sept. 23,1751.

As with many menu items, the precise origin of Manhattan clam chowder is difficult to determine, though many believe the first restaurant to serve it was the legendary Delmonico’s in New York. In 1889, Delmonico’s chef du maison Alessandro Filippini wrote down the first known recipe for what would become Manhattan clam chowder in his The Table: How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and How to Serve It.

From early on, the Manhattan version of clam chowder has had its opponents. In 1939, a bill actually was introduced by the Maine legislature to make it a statutory offense to put tomatoes into chowder!

It is difficult to understand the rabid dislike of Manhattan clam chowder, with even the distinguished James Beard weighing in that he found it “horrendous.” According to Beard, it “resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it.” How could this man, who did so much for American cuisine, be so wrong about Manhattan clam chowder?

Though many of us who prefer the Manhattan version cannot understand such baseless hatred, it is well for all of us to recognize that variations do exist.

All we’re asking is that all these types get along, and that we have a little more diversity in the offerings available at local restaurants.

Many differences

It’s probably best not to get too hung up on any single variety of clam chowder. We lovers of the Manhattan version, being clearly in the minority, have learned to tolerate the creamier kind of chowder. As with anything as wonderful as clam chowder, however, there will be regional variations, some creamier, others tomato-ier. All these versions contain clams.

† New England clam chowder actually is one of the simpler styles, differentiated by the use of cream or milk, with onions and potatoes. Yawn. Could the apparent dominance of this chowder in the Chicago market be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy for restaurants to prepare?

† Delaware clam chowder contains bacon and potatoes and sometimes cream, but what sets Delaware’s version apart is the addition of white wine and corn, which gives the broth a slightly yellowish cast.

† Rhode Island clam chowder can be made of either clear or red tomato-based broth. This minimalist version contains onions, potatoes, pork, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Called by locals “quahog chowder” after the large, briny clams used in the preparation, there is, of course, passionate controversy about ingredients along with fierce local pride regarding the primacy of this kind of chowder above all others.

† New Jersey clam chowder contains both cream and potatoes, along with Old Bay spices. Though it may be blasphemy to suggest this to denizens of the Garden State, I gotta say: the New Jersey version of clam chowder seems to be basically New England clam chowder with a touch of seasoning.

† North Carolina, or Hatteras, clam chowder is creamy, but it contains no cream; rather, a clear broth is thickened with flour. Along with bacon and tomatoes, recipes for this chowder also contain celery and carrots, no doubt anathema to James Beard. This version also may be pepped up with hot sauce, which brings us to …

† Minorcan clam chowder. This Floridian favorite — allegedly introduced by the Spanish who came over from the island of Minorca — is tomato-based and usually the hottest of the lot. Minorcan clam chowder contains several types of peppers, including habanero and, critically, datil chiles (a variety available in St. Augustine, but rarely elsewhere in the United States). Now, because the Spanish were the first well-documented Europeans to hit North American shores, there is reason to believe that this could be the first European clam chowder in the Americas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, chowders also were eaten by Native Americans. According to Eating in American — A History, by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont: “The Northeastern Indians made considerable use of fish, but the Pilgrims were slow to follow their example; they did not care much for fish, except eels ... Fish chowder was a popular dish among Northeastern Indians.”

Room for more

All versions of chowder have their partisans, many of whom claim their version is THE version, the only way chowder “should” be made, all others being pale imitations, imposters, bogus, etc. If this review of clam chowders has done anything, I do hope it’s expanded your tolerance for what is and is not clam chowder.

I find myself in full agreement with Jasper White, who wrote in the introduction to his 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals – Clam, Corn and Beyond, that “to understand chowder, you must move away from the image of the pasty-white clam chowder most restaurants serve in a small cup with a bag of crackers.”

It’s high time we end the hegemony of New England clam chowder in Chicago.

And so, tolerant of all, we humbly plead: let’s get Manhattan clam chowder back on more Chicagoland menus. And maybe the Minorcan variety, too — that version sounds particularly tasty.

David Hammond writes the Food section’s Food Detective column.



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