“When that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition.”
— From “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville (1851)
The Giants and Patriots vie for NFL supremacy, renewing a battle first fought in 2008 and ending with the Gothamites' spoiling the perfect end to a perfect season for Tom Brady and his teammates. With a feud brewing that could be worthy of the West Virginia-Kentucky back country, it seems logical to watch it unfold with a bowl of the thing longest dividing the Northeastern seaboard: clam chowder.
The vitriol from their sports rivalries combined is barely the sum of the consternation a simple bowl of clam chowder can evoke from Beantown to the Big Apple.
New England clam chow
A Life Magazine cookbook published in 1958 suggests New Englanders consider Manhattan's chowder to be “vegetable soup with clams drawn through it,” while New Yorkers consider white chowder a “stew worthy of infants or invalids.”
What better to serve for your Super Sunday than a tureen full of both and a whole bunch of oyster crackers so you can literally taste the rivalry?
Chowder in white
Like so many wars, the one raged over clam chowder is rooted in religion. Clam chowder was a Friday staple for restaurants where Catholicism was king and abstinence from eating meat was the rule on the last day of the workweek.
Original North American chowders date to the first arrival of Europeans. Corn chowder was one of the first true fusion dishes, a collision of corn and French-style soup.
The Union Oyster House has served New Englanders from Daniel Webster to the Kennedys since 1826. Noted as not only the oldest restaurant in Boston but the oldest restaurant in continuous service in the U.S., The Union has served clam chowder since at least 1836. The chowder served there represented an evolution that began as soon as Plymouth Rock became a boat dock. Clams were plentiful and used for everything from snack to feed. Like any popular ingredient, it was put through the paces. Soon, cream, potatoes and salt pork were the foundation. By the end of the 19th century, New England clam chowder was as common along the Atlantic as chicken-fried steak in Oklahoma today.
Author Joseph C. Lincoln, who waxed poetic about Cape Cod and its surroundings from 1902 until his death in 1944, once wrote: “A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for — or on — clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle' in a kettle.”
The chowder in red
To understand New York's attitude toward New Englanders, consider the song “What a Waste” from the 1953 musical “Wonderful Town.” It describes a “kid from Cape Cod” who came to New York City to join the opera, “Sing Rigoletto his wish. At the Fulton Market now he yells ‘fish!'”
The aforementioned Fulton Fish Market is one of the first places noted for tomato-based clam chowder. Still in operation today, it was one of the country's first open-air fish markets, residing for nearly two centuries on the East River before relocating in 2005.
How tomato-based chowder became known as Manhattan-style is disputed. Some believe it came from the throng of Italian immigrants in New York; others say the most likely explanation is an influx of Portuguese immigrants in the fishing communities of Rhode Island.
Alessandro Filippini, chef du maison from 1849 to 1863 at Delmonico's in New York, wrote a cookbook in 1889 called “The Table: How to Buy Food, How to Cook It, and How to Serve It” for home cooks. In the book he included a recipe for clam chowder that used tomatoes instead of milk or cream. Five years later, French chef and fellow Delmonico's alum Charles Ranhofer included a recipe called Chowder de Lucines in his cookbook “The Epicurean: A Complete Treatise of Analytical & Practical Studies” that also substituted tomatoes for milk.
In “The Book of Chowder” (Harvard Common Press, 1978), Richard J. Hooker suggests Manhattan clam chowder was among the offerings served at Coney Island food stands in the late 19th century.
Regardless of which origin you believe, the dish known as Coney Island Clam Chowder or Fulton Fish Market Clam Chowder was an abomination to the simple country folk of New England, who derisively referred to the nouvelle chowder as “Manhattan-style” since nothing of quality came from New York.
By the beginning of the Great Depression the name had stuck, and New Yorkers were plenty pleased to have chowder of their own to bandy about. Legend has it a Maine lawmaker once introduced a bill in February 1939 to make the entrance of a tomato into clam chowder illegal, only to have it voted down.
In my ceaseless attempt to celebrate locals — especially over Yankees — I sourced a pair of local clam chowder recipes with equally divergent histories.
Chef John Bennett introduced fine dining to Oklahoma City at The Cellar at Hightower as Beatlemania was first breaking out. Bennett told me New England clam chowder was a best-seller along with a half Reuben sandwich on the lunch menu. He recreated the dish for a Cellar retrospective at the Paseo Grill a couple of winters ago, and it was immediately apparent why the dish had been so popular. Bennett was kind enough to share the recipe with us.
For my Manhattan recipe, I dug into The Oklahoman archives to find an award-winning recipe from Irma Howard, of Tonkawa. Howard was 75 when she entered her recipe into a Melba's Swap Shop contest. Irma was a go-getter, saying she had only taken up cooking in her 70s. Irma, for whom a scholarship is named at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, won $150 for her 1983 entry. She died in 1993 at age 84.
For our recipes, we're calling for canned clams because they are easier to get; however, fresh clams are much easier to find now than ever. Between Avalon, Gulfport, The Meat House, Whole Foods fresh clams are within reach.
Who will reach for the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday? The game looks like a pick 'em if ever there was one. The Giants are the hotter team and sport the superior defense, but the Patriots have three titles and Tom Brady. In other words, it stacks up similarly to the 2008 matchup, though the teams are much different. My eyes tell me take the Giants in a high-scoring affair, but it wouldn't be any surprise to see Heritage Hall-alum Wes Welker catch a short touchdown pass over the middle in the waning moments to win title No. 4 for New England and strike a blow for white clam chowder to boot.