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Quit calling your pasty chowder “New England Style”

Hey, California. Hey, Florida. Hey, Seattle and everywhere else beyond the borders of New England. Hear my rant: That’s not New England clam chowder they’re feeding you despite what it says on the menu.

I’m originally from Massachusetts and spent years cruising the Maine coast. Now I live in Florida and make regular visits to the West Coast. I’ve given up ordering “New England” or “Boston” clam chowder in those places because, quite frankly, their chowders stink.

I recently attended a wedding in Maine and I used the occasion to take a road trip down Memory Lane, sampling the chowders as I went. My last tasting happened at The Grog in my old stomping ground of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The newsletter pictures that introduced this blog tell the story. One is from a WikiHow explainer on how to make paste for home projects. The other is a picture of clam chowder. Who knows? Maybe that chowder won an award in Seattle. Except for the bits of clam and bacon in the latter, the substances in both dishes were virtually identical in texture and that’s because they share the same ingredient — a pile of flour or cornstarch.

The clam chowder at The Grog in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is renowned in the region. Note how the butter floats on the surface of the creamy broth.

The clam chowder at The Grog in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is renowned in the region. Note how the butter floats on the surface of the creamy broth.

Neither The Grog’s chowder, which was sublime, nor any other chowders eaten during my recent visit were thickened with anything other than the potatoes or cream.

When discussed this issue recently, Karl S. nailed the distinction, calling thick chowder “an utter abomination.” He wrote:

There are degrees of thinness and thickness. In terms of authenticity, there should be no roux or cornstarch; the only starchy thickening should be that exuded from the potatoes. Ignore cookbooks that tell you otherwise.

In terms of liquid, versions range from an emphasis on clam broth (more typical in southeastern New England), broth and milk, or broth and a touch of cream. The problem with milk is that it is less stable, especially if you try to hold it at high heat; there is by nature a difference between chowder made at home to be eaten immediately and the compromises that have been made in food service variations on the theme — cream and rouxs are friendlier for food service, but more distant kin to the real thing that one can more easily serve at home.

The addition of dairy to the broth does thicken the soup, but more in terms of velvetiness or silkiness of mouthfeel, not "thick" in the starchy sense. Just remember that, if a chowder is too rich with cream, the dairy fat starts to obscure, rather than carry the clam flavor. (Hence, people who really don't like the flavor of clams tend to prefer a heavy hand with the cream .... ) Thick chowder is an utter abomination. (Shudder.) That, of course, does not prevent it from winning awards.

West Coast folks and fellow Floridians might well enjoy eating clam-flavored library paste and, even though their opinions might be based on ignorance, they are entitled to have them. They are not entitled to their own set of facts, however. Thick chowder is not New England clam chowder and never has been. If chefs won’t change their recipes, they should at least quit lying on the menus.