Rhode Island has its own clam chowder – and it was the first
Chowderheads have long debated the relative merits of Manhattan versus the New England variety of clam chowder, although, really, it’s not much of an argument. The creamy chowder from up North is almost universally acclaimed as superior to the tomato-based broth, which, in fact, did not originate in New York at all, rather with the Portuguese immigrants who settled in Rhode Island in the 19th century.
As it turns out, the smallest state has played an outsized role in the chowder world, stirring the pot with a third, often-overlooked variety of clam chowder. It’s a clear broth traditionally prepared with the state’s indigenous bivalves, known as quahogs.
The basic recipe for Rhode Island-style chowder – quahogs, clam juice, butter and diced potatoes – predates both the New England and Manhattan varieties, and was a staple food for mill workers as well as sailors and fishermen.
Quahogs are bountiful in Rhode Island — Photo courtesy of iStock / Dale Fornoff
“All chowders prior to the 1880s were clear chowders, so you’re eating the original,” says chef Jack Chiaro, a College of Culinary Arts faculty member at Providence’s Johnson & Wales University.
Chowder originated on ships, thickened with hardtack biscuits and seasoned with the salt pork issued as rations to sailors. There were no hard-and-fast recipes in those days; “You used what you had,” and odd ingredients like carrots and turnips might end up swimming in your bowl alongside the ground-up clams, says Chiaro.
In Rhode Island, quahogs were – and still are – both plentiful and cheap. “You can go out your door and just rake them up,” says Jane Bitto, owner of Evelyn’s Drive-In, a classic New England roadside clam shack in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and winner of our Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Clams in Rhode Island.
Clamming remains a tradition in Rhode Island, where Narragansett Bay “is just about paved with quahogs,” says Jeff Cruff, chef at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, a coastal seafood restaurant with its own aquaculture operation.
The clear Rhode Island recipe is “the purest way of eating chowder,” says Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Perry Raso. “It lends a lot more to someone with a palate for layers of flavor. The creamy chowder is delicious but the flavor of the clams is somewhat masked.”
The rich, “clammy” flavor of clear chowder is due in part to the use of the big-bodied quahogs, which Raso says have a greater umami flavor and less salinity than other clams. “Quahogs have a really hearty meat,” he says. “Steamers are more delicate and don’t hold together as well.”
The Matunuck Oyster Bar substitutes hickory smoked bacon for the traditional salt pork in its clam chowder. Celery, onions, and red bliss potatoes also go into the pot, along with a little fresh thyme and dill, salt and pepper. Any residual fat content comes from the bacon; no butter is added at the South Kingstown, R.I. restaurant, so compared to creamy chowder, “clear chowder is significantly healthier to eat,” notes Cruff.
Rhode Island clam chowder from Matunuck Oyster Bar — Photo courtesy of https://www.southcountyri.com/
Clear chowder was once deeply interwoven into Rhode Island culture, a staple at weekend brunches and served alongside fried clam cakes in the Shore Dinner Hall at the former Rocky Point amusement park.
You can still find clear chowder at restaurants in Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut (where it’s sometimes called Noank chowder). But it’s hard to resist the power of cream, and these days you’re more likely to find New England clam chowder on the menu than the classic broth, even in the Ocean State.
“We’ve seen the traditions fading a bit,” says Chiaro. “It’s not seen as comfort food anymore.”
Evelyn’s Drive-In is one of the few remaining places where clear chowder still outsells the white stuff. “For more than 30 years, it was the only chowder we served,” says Bitto. “We only put the New England chowder on the menu four years ago. When people eat at a local place like ours, it’s a real Rhode Island experience.”
Matunuck Oyster Bar chef Cruff agrees, “The flavor of clear chowder is Rhode Island to me,” he says. That connection gives Chiaro hope that Rhode Island chowder may have a future as well as a past.
“This generation is getting more and more interested in local, sustainable products,” he says. “It could make a comeback.”