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Clam Chowder: New England vs. Manhattan

Clam Chowder: New England vs. Manhattan
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Welcome to the March 2011 edition of
“Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather
curious monthly musings of Judson Hale,
editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine,
published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Clam Chowder:
New England vs. Manhattan
This is one controversy that’ll never fade …

Of all New England dishes, clam chowder probably evokes the strongest feelings. In 1939, for instance, a bill was introduced into the Maine state legislature suggesting that making a clam chowder with tomatoes be deemed illegal. Almost passed, too.
To some, the vehement objection of New Englanders to the presence of a tomato in their clam chowder might appear odd. After all, it was a Newport, Rhode Islander – Michaele Felice Corne – who, probably around 1835, was the first to dine on tomatoes. (Thomas Jefferson, in 1781, was the first in this country to grow them.) Before this, most people in New England believed the “tomata,” as it was usually spelled, or “love apple,” caused all sorts of diseases. In fact, it’s suspected in some quarters that it was Michaele Felice Corne himself who inaugurated the clam chowder controversy by dunking some of his tomatoes in his chowder. The Corne family today, as I understand it, adamantly asserts this “vicious rumor” to be untrue. Nonetheless, of all of today’s native New Englanders, only Rhode Islanders will add at the end of their clam chowder recipes, “If desired, add a can of tomato soup.”
Now Manhattan or New York clam chowder is altogether different. It’s not just New England clam chowder with tomatoes or tomato soup, as in Rhode Island; the entire base is different. Traditionally, what New Yorkers call clam chowder is actually a spicy vegetable soup to which someone once decided to add a few clams.
And therein is one of the main reasons the presence of tomatoes in clam chowder so upsets most of us: It reminds us of how stubborn and ridiculous New Yorkers are to persist in calling their vegetable soup a clam chowder.
Perhaps the controversy goes further. “Any fools knows that Manhattan clam chowder is far superior to New England clam chowder,” wrote a New York columnist some years ago. “It is superior because it comes from Manhattan. The other comes from New England.”
Now, that’s getting down to the nub of it. Both sides feel superior – but I trust no true New Englander would feel the need to say so. I personally prefer the lighter, subtler chowder darts anyway, such as: “The best thing to use in Manhattan clam chowder is pieces of old automobile inner tubes. They wear well and do not interfere with the tomatoes.” That quote is from a July 1958 edition of the old New York Herald Tribune. However, I have reason to believe the writer was originally from Gouldsboro, Maine.

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