Can New England compromise when it comes to clam chowder?

Boston, MA - 2/28/2016 - The clam chowder is seen at the Union Oyster House in Boston, MA  February 28, 2016. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Topic: 02dining
Reporter:
A cup of New England clam chowder pictured at Boston's Union Oyster House in 2016. –Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

To residents of New England, it may not be much of a debate. What’s the best style of clam chowder? The thick cream-based version that is iconic to the region or that garish red style from New York City?

It’s a regional divide that dates back centuries. And while there are far more than just two regional varieties, it’s the New England-versus-Manhattan debate on which the opposing sides clash most. In 1939, a Maine lawmaker even pushed a bill banning tomatoes in chowder.

Dan Pashman has a foot in both camps.

The host of The Sporkful podcast and author of Eat More Better, Pashman grew up just outside of New York in New Jersey. But he also has roots in Massachusetts, attended college at Tufts, and waited tables at Legal Sea Foods, where the Boston chain’s famous chowder was a free perk.

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Pashman has devoted a tremendous amount of time and thought into dissecting various food debates. But his response is simple when it comes to New England and Manhattan clam chowder.

“It’s very telling that in the New York metro area, there are a lot of places that have New England clam chowder,” Pashman told Boston.com. “But there’s no place in New England that has Manhattan clam chowder.”

“I think the people have spoken,” he added.

With that settled, Pashman admitted that Manhattan clam chowder does have its merits and suggested there’s a hybrid style that even New Englanders should be willing to give a chance.

But first, he explained where many local restaurants — and patrons —  go wrong when it comes to New England clam chowder.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is the key to perfecting New England clam chowder?

Dan Pashman: Start with a good broth obviously, but once you get past that, it’s really about how many clams, how many potatoes, and how big are the pieces of clam.

I have a general frustration that a lot of people order a clam-based dish, and they don’t really seem to even like clams … people who make clam chowder and chop up the clams so much that you can barely know if you’re eating any clams. I don’t just want the word clam to be a word on the menu; I want to be sinking my teeth into clams.

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Anything else?

DP: You need to have a good oyster cracker strategy.

Don’t dump the whole entire bag into the chowder at once; that’s a rookie mistake, because then half the crackers will be soggy by the time you get to them. You don’t want them super crunchy. You want them to absorb a little bit of broth, but you still want them to have some texture to them.

So, really, you should do a third to a half of your oyster cracker bag at a time, and then you add more when you get farther down, so that they maintain a little bit of crunch.

If you have the right ratios — if you can get a bite with a oyster cracker that’s absorbed some broth and a little piece of potato and a nice chunk of clam — you’re going to have what sensory scientists call dynamic contrast. That’s when you have various different textures all coming together in one bite — the crispness of the cracker, the softness of the potato, the chewiness of the clam, the creaminess of the broth. You’re going to have everything in that one bite. It’s just going to be a phenomenal bite.

But if the place shortchanges you on the clams, you’re never going to get one of those bites.

What about Manhattan-style clam chowder? Do you find it runs into the same problem?

DP: I think that, on average, Manhattan clam chowder has more chunks of different things. I mean sometimes you’ll get a little bit of celery or onion or something in your New England [chowder], but it’s mostly potatoes, clams, and broth. And there may be vegetables that have been pureed into the broth.

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With Manhattan, it’s a more likely that you’re going to see a little bit of carrot or a piece of tomato, or onion, or something. It’s more like a vegetable soup with clams in it. And so it’s a little bit more of an ensemble cast with the Manhattan style. So it can be very nice, but to me it often kind of loses the seafood-ness.

There’s nothing quite like New England clam chowder. Whereas Manhattan clam chowder is like — you know — it’s not that different from other tomato soups.

Does Manhattan clam chowder have any strengths compared to New England clam chowder?

DP: The nice thing about Manhattan clam chowder is that it is lighter and it certainly feels healthier. If you have a bowl of [New England] clam chowder before your meal, you’re going to put a real dent in your appetite.

And that’s OK, if that’s what you want. But a bowl of New England clam chowder is not a snack. You’re well on your way to a meal at that point. It can be heavy and it can be rich, and sometimes you want that, but sometimes you don’t want that.

Is there ever a situation in which you would pick Manhattan clam chowder over New England clam chowder?

DP: Maybe if I was on a health kick that day. Or if I had eaten a lot other rich foods already that day and I wanted something that would feel a little bit more light and veggie centric — and something that has some acidity and bright flavors, as opposed to something that is very rich and heavy and creamy.

At this point in the interview, Pashman pauses before segueing unprompted to a lesser known regional variation, a combination between the New England and Manhattan styles that he characterizes as the “Arnold Palmer of chowder.”

DP: There’s one thing you want to take into account. I live on Long Island now, and there’s a thing here called Long Island clam chowder.

Long Island clam chowder is half New England, half Manhattan. It sort of ends up being like a tomato cream soup situation and it can be really nice, because it adds more complexity. New England clam chowder can be a bit of a one-note song.

And you think this captures the good qualities of both styles?

DP: A lot of times people try to do mashups of different foods and I’m like, ‘Why? Like you made both of those things less good.’ But this is one… Look, there are times that I would still want New England over Long Island style, but I think it’s rare that I would ever want Manhattan over Long Island style.

It is a nice happy medium and it does have a lot going on. You get the umami of the tomato and you still get your clams and your crackers, and then you get even more texture.

It’s kind of fitting, because, in a lot of ways, there are parts of Long Island that are very much like a mixture of New York and New England.

Maybe not the areas of Long Island that most New Englanders think of, in which there’s a stereotype of Long Island. But when you get a little bit farther out of the city, there’s a lot of coastline, a lot of waterfront, a lot of old fishing and sailing towns. The history of commerce on the water that you get in New England is also very much a part of the history and the culture of Long Island, especially the more rural half of Long Island.

Do you think Long Island clam chowder has any chance of making it in New England?

DP: Knowing New Englanders as I do, I suspect they’re going to be skeptical of anything named after Long Island.