I have called Boston home for more than eleven years now. As such I prefer nearly all things Boston to New York — Red Sox over Yankees; Celtics over Knicks; Patriots over Jets; Symphony Hall over Lincoln Center and the D Branch of the Green Line over the D Train.
Yet when it comes to culinary matters the preferences of my palate are not based on geography. At the risk of committing heresy, when it comes to chowder I will take the Manhattan variety over the Boston/New England version every single time. Now there is a practical reason for this preference. I cannot consume dairy products without becoming sick to my stomach. But even before dairy products became a health issue for me I was never a fan of cream-based soups.
Naturally this puts me in a rather awkward position in the land of Chowda. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t illegal in Massachusetts to put tomato in clam chowder. It just feels like it is. While you can buy a can of Campbell’s Chunky or Progresso Manhattan Clam Chowder in most grocery stores in the Bay State without being confronted by a State Trooper, finding a restaurant willing to serve a cup or bowl of Manhattan clam chowder isn’t so easy. In my early days here, when I would see clam chowder on a restaurant menu my eyes would light up and I would naively ask, “New England or Manhattan?” With the glare I would invariably receive from the server I might as well have asked, “David Ortiz or Derek Jeter?”
I do remember one Sunday afternoon a number of years ago when I ventured by commuter rail to Concord for one of my walks around Walden Pond. After I had finished contemplating Thoreau I walked into town and found an eatery. When I asked the waitress what the soup of the day was I did a double take when she said, “Manhattan clam chowder.” She added in hushed tones, “We don’t get that in here very often.”
Or consider what happened last week after my roommate Christopher Kain finished giving a poetry reading at Emerson College in downtown Boston. Christopher, a couple of his friends, and I adjourned to Remington’s of Boston, a tavern a couple of doors down on Boylston Street. Lo and behold there was Manhattan clam chowder on the menu. Or was it? Instead of displaying a price for a cup and a bowl the menu instructed patrons entertaining the idea of ordering chowder with a tomato base to “take I-95 South.”
A few days later I took their advice. Shortly after arriving in New York, my father and I walked a short distance to Utopia, an Upper West Side diner on Amsterdam Avenue between 72nd and 73rd streets. I have been there on several occasions and have always enjoyed a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. In fact, no trip to New York is complete without a bowl of Manhattan clam. So imagine my surprise when I saw the waiter approach our table with a bowl that contained a yellowish white concoction. It turns out they ran out of Manhattan clam chowder and instead presented me with a bowl of New England clam. I ended up settling for chicken noodle.
Yet consider the contrast. When a diner in New York didn’t have Manhattan clam chowder it was more than happy to serve New England clam. There was no menu to tell me that if I wanted New England clam I would need to take I-95 North. Do you think for one moment that if a restaurant in Boston were to run out of New England clam it would be willing to offer the Manhattan variety in its place? Not on your life.
But why is this so? Based on my decade plus here I would say it’s because Bostonians are far more preoccupied with New York than New York is with Boston. Don’t get me wrong. New Yorkers pay attention to Boston and don’t like losing to Boston. Yet they don’t hate all things Boston. It isn’t an obsession. The same cannot be said for residents of the Hub.
Frankly, this works to our detriment. Because ironically enough Manhattan clam chowder didn’t originate in New York. So where was it invented? In New England, of course. The idea one could put tomatoes instead of milk and cream into clam chowder came to be in Rhode Island during the 1830s by Portuguese immigrants who lived in fishing villages. The Portuguese fishers already had a tradition of eating tomato based stews. Patrician and proper New Englanders from Massachusetts to Maine looked down upon this culinary practice and referred to the dish as Manhattan clam chowder. But instead of being insulted, New Yorkers happily claimed this soup as their own while Bostonians and New Englanders are the poorer for their culinary elitism.
Indeed, how many New Englanders know there is also a Rhode Island clam chowder that is made of a clear broth? For the record, I have never had a cup or bowl Rhode Island clam chowder but I am more than willing to try. New Englanders should take pride in all of their clam chowders. Now if I could only get a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder in New York.