Few American dishes represent the diversity of American cuisine as well as clam chowder. Red, white, or clear it has changed form countless times yet is always a hit with diners.
But first off, what exactly is clam chowder?
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary chowder is "a soup or stew of seafood (such as clams or fish) usually made with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions, and other vegetables."
Yet the actual recipe of this soup varies depending what part of the country it comes from, but most often it includes clams, potatoes, onions, and some form of pork.
The biggest variation between the recipes is the broth: Some chefs use milk to produce a thick, creamy broth while others use a red broth made with tomatoes and spices. in addition there’s also a clear broth made with just clam juice.
While chowders may be made differently, they all share one thing in common: everyone rates their chowder as best!
So when was clam chowder first created?
Culinary historians believe that the New England style of chowder was introduced to New England and Canada by the mid-1700s. Chowder continued to gain popularity over the years and was being served in Boston at Ye Olde Union Oyster House (America’s oldest continuously operating restaurant) as early as 1836. Clam chowder was so popular that it was even described in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
Just how many different varieties of clam chowder are there?
The most popular and well known versions are the New England-style and Manhattan-style chowders, distinguished by their white and red colors, respectively. However, there are many other distinct varieties from all over the East Coast as well as the West Coast.
New England clam chowder was undoubtedly the first. It is defined as "a thick chowder made from clams, potatoes, onions, sometimes salt pork, and milk or cream." The recipe usually calls for heavy cream, light cream, or whole milk as the base for the soup. This addition of milk or cream — producing the soup's unmistakable white color — is the biggest difference between the New England style and all the rest.
Manhattan clam chowder, on the other hand, can be recognized by its red color, created by tomatoes and tomato paste. The broth is much thinner than the thicker New England version and while it also includes potatoes, most Manhattan-style chowders boast a variety of vegetables like carrots, celery, onion, and garlic for added flavor.
The first recipe for "Manhattan Clam Chowder" was published in 1934 in a cookbook called Soups and Sauces by Virginia Elliott and Robert Jones. While the name "Manhattan" stuck, the soup has little to do with New York City's famed borough.
Not to be left out, New Jersey has also created its own version, which is somewhat similar to Manhattan clam chowder. It's made with tomatoes but also creamed asparagus, light cream, and bacon. It's also seasoned with Old Bay spice, parsley, and celery powder.
Going deeper into the South to Florida where St. Augustine calls Minorcan clam chowder one of its signature dishes. This one is similar to Manhattan-style with a tomato-based but with one very unique ingredient: datil pepper.
The pepper — varying in color from green to a yellowish orange — is indigenous to Cuba and was brought to Florida hundreds of years ago by the Spanish. Its sweet, tart, and spicy taste gives the soup it's one-of-a-kind flavor. The name Minorcan refers to Florida settlers from the island of Minorca, Spain who created the hearty soup using local ingredients but with Mediterranean style.
There is also a Rhode Island clam chowder, known for its clear broth. In fact, the small state also has a red version of the famous soup. Unlike the Manhattan-style chowder, this one is not made with any actual tomatoes — it's made with tomato purée— or any added vegetables.
In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, there's a version dubbed Hatteras Island-style clam chowder — a broth-based soup that skips using both cream and tomatoes. It's commonly made with smaller clams due to their sweet flavor. The ingredients are cooked in a clam juice that uses only salt and pepper as a seasoning.
And not to be missed is the West Coast’s Cabo Clam Chowder, a California favorite with bold Latin flavors like chipotle. The recipe also includes onions, corns, jalapeños, and peppers, plus black beans, garlic, cilantro, cumin, and lime. The dish is most often garnished with tortilla strips.
With such a wide range of choices, it’s easy to see why America loves its chowder - each one as exciting as the region it calls home. But why savor just local favorites when, thanks to chowders, you can enjoy truly American flavors from sea to shining sea… all thanks to the humble clam!