Clam Chowder: Thick or Thin?

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I spent a glorious 4th of July weekend on Martha's Vineyard, where I set a personal record for the amount of fresh seafood eaten in four days. This being our honeymoon, my husband and I splurged on a couple of very nice dinners. But my favorite meal was probably the lunch we had on our second day: we rode our bicycles through picturesque farmland (ocean views, rock walls, grazing sheep—you could almost be in Ireland) to the little fishing village of Menemsha. There, we ordered fresh lobster from one of the fish markets, cooked to order and eaten on the docks as we watched the fishing boats come in.

I also ordered a cup of clam chowder, and was surprised that it had a rather thin, milky broth compared to the stand-your-spoon-up-in-it versions I was accustomed to. With that statement, subsequent research has led me to realize, native New Englanders (at least coastal ones) will be shaking their heads and pitying my ignorance—I might as well be opining that "wicked" should only be used as an adjective, not an adverb, or that Kevin Youkilis has a stupid-looking batting stance.

As it turns out, my West Coast upbringing has—until now—deprived me of the opportunity to eat "proper" New England clam chowder, at least according to some purists.

"Authentic New England chowders are never thick, however, with most relying on the starch from the potatoes to slightly thicken the broth and milk or cream," explains Charlie Burke, at the online magazine The Heart of New England. "The thick, pasty chowders served in many restaurants are full of flour which masks the flavor of the clams, and would never be served at a church supper in Maine or by any self respecting Yankee cook."

Some commenters on the Chowhound board were even more opinionated on the matter, deriding thick chowder as "an abomination" or "wallpaper paste." Burke's explanation makes sense; the clam flavor in the thinner soup I had in Massachusetts was far more pronounced than in the viscous versions I've tasted elsewhere. Consider me a convert.

In Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots, John Thorne delves into the history of chowder. The origin of the word is thought to be from the French chaudière, meaning cauldron, spread via Breton immigrants to Newfoundland and down the coast to New England, although Thorne points out that some people believe it comes from the English term jowter, slang for a fish peddler. As his interesting essay reveals, etymology is not the only thing about chowder about which there is disagreement.

Published recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries varied widely in ingredients and preparations, calling for everything from claret to tomato ketchup. (To which, Thorne writes, "A thousand Yankee mariners groaned and rolled over in their graves.") Milk or cream probably didn't become common until later, and even then, regional variations sometimes excluded dairy in favor of clear clam broth or—the horror—tomato. To this he devotes an entire chapter, called "The Abhorred Tomato," in which he writes, "the topic 'tomatoes and clams' has become a mainstay of Yankee identity, or at least the curmudgeonly, self-congratulatory kind."

Actually, that sounds a lot like the deeply ingrained Red Sox-Yankees rivalry I have witnessed since moving to upstate New York. I may bow to the culinary wisdom of New England seafood preparation, but having married into a true-blue Yanks family, it is my duty to continue to mock the Boston team. Blood, after all, is thicker than chowder—even the pasty kind.

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