Rhode Island Chowder Still Confounds — and Satisfies

Rhode Island Clam Chowder Recipe

It’s a crisp spring morning at Park Elementary School in Warwick, Rhode Island, circa early 1970s, and standing self-consciously by the school’s front door are a few teachers holding small brown-paper sacks, each containing peanut-butter-and-jelly and ham-and-cheese sandwiches wrapped in sharply creased wax paper.

Scanning the cluster of chattering children streaming into the beige-brick building, the teachers finally spot the Handrigan kids: Timmy, Patricia, Michael, and Terry. Their metal lunchboxes gleam with characters from their favorite TV shows: the “Partridge Family” for Patricia and the “Three Stooges” for the boys. Unbeknownst to all but this clutch of co-conspirators, tucked inside those lunchboxes is the object of the teachers’ affection: quahog chowder, plus a lobster roll or two, courtesy of surplus ingredients from Mr. Handrigan’s fledgling seafood business. To the kids’ delight, they won’t be eating this meal come lunchtime, for oldest brother Timmy has whispered to a favorite teacher about his siblings’ boredom with their steady diet of seafood and their longing for the kind of lunches the other kids eat each day.

Which is why the teachers are standing by the school doors, holding the bags filled with those carefully wrapped sandwiches. Later that morning, right before noontime, the arranged trade will go down, after which the triumphant Handrigan kids will rush to the cafeteria to devour the much-coveted PB&Js and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The teachers, feeling quite fortunate and understandably sheepish, will slink off to an empty classroom to dine on a lunch of homemade clam chowder and lobster rolls.

“They learned pretty quickly we always had the good stuff,” says Patricia, now 42, laughing at the memory as she reminisces from her home in Narragansett, Rhode Island. “After a couple of these swaps, one of the teachers called our mother and said, ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Handrigan, but I have to confess, we’ve been trading your children’s lunches and giving them ham sandwiches.’ And my mother started laughing and said, ‘That’s okay with us. We can’t afford ham!’”

While the lobster rolls made far more frequent appearances at school, the clam chowder was the sentimental favorite of the teachers, loyal Rhode Islanders that they were. For this wasn’t just any clam chowder. It wasn’t the thick, creamy concoction known as New England or “white” clam chowder; nor was it the Manhattan version, viewed by many, mostly northerners, not as actual chowder but vegetable-soup-with-a-few-clams-thrown-in. No, Handrigan’s was the classic Rhode Island clear-broth clam chowder, dubbed by locals as quahog chowder.

“Clear-broth chowder has such a pure taste compared to other chowders,” says Linda Beaulieu, author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook: Big Recipes from the Smallest State.

At home in her kitchen in northern Rhode Island, Beaulieu stirs a pot of broth chowder simmering on the stove. “It’s not that white chowder is bad. But really, you could put all that butter and cream on a shoe and it would taste good. With clear-broth chowder, you really taste the clams.”

So what, exactly, is Rhode Island clear-broth chowder? The essential ingredient is quahogs, large hard-shelled clams with a distinctively briny taste. Potatoes and onions are a must. Beyond that, it cook’s choice.

As with fried chicken or barbecue in the South, the finer points of making quahog chowder inspire intense debate among Rhode Islanders. The question of whether it’s best to chop, mince, or grind the quahog can prompt arguments so impassioned, a full-blown melee complete with quahogs pinging off foreheads isn’t out of the question. Purists insist salt pork is the only acceptable fat. Others thwart tradition and use vegetable oil, bacon, or butter. Varying opinions about the proper size of potato cubes abound. A dash or two of Worcestershire sauce is hailed by some, disdained by others. And in certain quarters, the mere mention of fresh herbs can trigger a level of scorn usually reserved for Yankees fans in this decidedly Red Sox-obsessed state.

Still, whatever the details of a specific recipe, the maxim for this chowder remains the same: the quahog takes center stage.

“When you first hear about quahog chowder, you think it might be kind of boring because there’s not much to it,” says Meridith Ford, dining critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who lived in Rhode Island for 16 years, five of them as the Providence Journal‘s dining critic. “In reality, there’s an art to making broth chowder. When it’s made right, the ingredients’ flavors are so pronounced, you can taste each one individually. It allows you to appreciate the clams on their own. At the same time, the flavors blend together in a way that makes the chowder a chowder.”

Clear-broth chowder isn’t as odd as it may sound. According to 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals — Clam, Corn & Beyond by Jasper White, a broth chowder was the first-known published clam chowder recipe in the United States, printed in 1833. As clam chowder grew in popularity, cream-based versions became common in most of New England, while in New York tomatoes and other vegetables were added.

One theory for the division, explains White, is the fact that by the late 1800s, both clams and tomatoes had become big businesses on Long Island, possibly inspiring the chowder combination. Still, the precise reasons for the regional preferences remain unclear. In any case, by the early 20th century, writes White, “All of northern New England abhor[red] the tomato-based chowders from Connecticut and New York, while in Rhode Island, cooks add[ed] neither milk nor tomatoes to their chowders.” Which is why cookbook author Beaulieu grew up eating clear-broth chowder at countless gatherings with her extended family in Rhode Island.

To make quahog chowder, Beaulieu uses an old Yankee family recipe her mother clipped from a local newspaper in the ‘40s. Since her parents were immigrants — her mother from French-speaking Belgium and her father from Italy — they didn’t have their own family recipe for chowder. “So we borrowed someone else’s,” she says. The recipe is a study in minimalism: water, quahogs, salt pork, onions, potatoes, a bit of pepper, a dash of Worcestershire sauce. The cooked minced quahogs soften, the tiniest pieces practically melting into the broth, thickening it and infusing it with intense ocean flavor. Each spoonful blends broth, briny clam essence, sweet onion, tender potato, and crispy pork bits.

As for Brian Handrigan, now 70, the father of those ham-sandwich-loving children, he still eats his own chowder every day. “It’s worked for me for 50 years,” he says, adding, “I figure: Why stop now?” And he still works in the seafood business: For the past 17 years, he’s co-owned Champlin’s Seafood, a counter-service restaurant and seafood market in the bustling fishing village of Galilee, Rhode Island. Champlin’s is the kind of place where the chowder is served in white Styrofoam containers with plastic spoons and crackers in noisy cellophane packages and a Red Sox logo tops the Budweiser tap. It’s also where Narragansett Beer — the newly resurrected, beloved local lager, first brewed in Rhode Island in 1888 — is on draft.

To appease out-of-state customers who may hesitate to eat their chowder straight-up, the restaurant offers a white and a red chowder — not to be confused with thick, creamy New England or vegetable-laden Manhattan deviations. The base for both versions at Champlin’s is the broth chowder, with milk added for the white and tomatoes for the red.

Clear-broth chowder remains the bestseller, by far. On a typical summer day, according to Handrigan, when the restaurant serves more than 100 gallons of chowder, about 70 percent is clear-broth, the rest split evenly between white and red.

“Native Rhode Islanders might stray once in a while and try the white or red,” he says. “But they always come back to the clear-broth.”

Handrigan’s daughter, Patricia, helps dole out all those servings of chowder when she works part-time at Champlin’s during the summer rush. She’s now a devoted fan of clear-broth chowder, as is her husband, also a native Rhode Islander. And the couple’s sons, ages 6, 11, and 15?

“Well, right now,” she says, “the boys prefer the white chowder. They like the potatoes and the crackers, and to be honest, they like that the milk covers up the strong clam taste. But I’m sure when they grow up, they’ll come around to loving broth chowder, just like we did. I mean, they are Rhode Islanders.”

swirlRhode Island Clam Chowder

As with fried chicken or barbecue in the South, the finer points of making clear-broth clam chowder inspire intense debate among Rhode Islanders. The question of whether it’s best to chop, mince, or grind the clams can prompt arguments so impassioned, a full-blown melée complete with quahogs pinging off foreheads isn’t out of the question. Purists insist salt pork is the only acceptable fat. Others thwart tradition and use vegetable oil, bacon, or butter. Varying opinions about the proper size of potato cubes abound. A dash or two of Worcestershire sauce is hailed by some, disdained by others. And in certain quarters, the mere mention of fresh herbs can trigger a level of scorn usually reserved for Yankees fans in this decidedly Red Sox-obsessed state. You decide.–Laurie Jones

Rhode Island Clam Chowder Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 35 M
  • 1 H, 25 M
  • Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

  • 10 to 12 quahogs in the shell
  • 1/4 pound salt pork, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 cup onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 pounds all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch dice
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Directions

  • 1. Scrub the quahogs and rinse clean under cold running water. Discard any that aren’t tightly closed. Put the quahogs in a stockpot and cover with 6 cups of cool water. Bring to a simmer over medium- to medium-high heat. Cover the pot and cook just until the quahogs open, about 8 to 10 minutes. Don’t overcook. Immediately remove the quahogs from the pot.
  • 2. When cool enough to touch, remove the cooked quahog meat from the shells and chop it into 1/8-inch dice. Set aside.
  • 3. Cover the stockpot and place over low heat to keep the broth-infused water warm while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
  • 4. In a skillet, cook the salt pork over medium heat until the fat renders and the meat is browned and crisp. Remove and set aside. Add the onions to the skillet and saute until they’re translucent but not colored.
  • 5. When the onions are cooked, scrape them, along with any brown bits stuck to the skillet, into the clam broth. If necessary, deglaze the frying pan with a ladle of broth and then pour the liquid back into the stockpot.
  • 6. Bring the broth to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and add the potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the salt pork. Season with the pepper and the Worcestershire sauce.
  • 7. Add the cooked quahogs and heat through for a minute. Taste and correct seasonings. Serve immediately. Or, if you prefer, let cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat the next day.
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About Laurie Jones


Comments
Comments
  1. David Leite says:

    Wicked cool. Shopped using my iPhone as an ingredients list for the Rhode Island Clam Chowder. On my way home to cook. Gotta love technology.

    • Billy DiPanni says:

      I am not sure why they call this RI clam chowder; most of us here eat red chowder…not Manhattan but Rocky Point style.

      Rocky Point-Style Clam Chowder
      1/4 pound salt pork, minced fine
      3 medium onions
      1 garlic clove
      Old Bay Seasoning, (optional)
      1 quart quahog or clam juice
      Water about 1 cup or more–taste the broth first to see if it needs any at all.
      2 pints shucked quahogs cut up small or 1 pint clams and 1 pint quahogs
      About 5 medium potatoes cut into small cubes, old potatoes are best
      Pilot crackers or crushed up oyster crackers about 1/2- 3/4 cup or as needed to thicken
      1 can tomato soup or tomato sauce
      Black pepper

      1. In a medium pot, fry the salt pork till browned well.

      2. Throw in the onions and garlic and cook until translucent. You can, if you like, add a teaspoon of Old Bay Seasoning.

      3. Add the clam juice and water. Bring to a simmer and add the quahogs or clams or or a mix of both, cook for 15 minutes.

      4. Add the potatoes, cracker crumbs, tomato soup and simmer another 15 to 20 minutes till done. Stir it so the crackers disintegrate and thicken the chowder. Also break up a few of the potatoes, as that also thickens it nicely. Add pepper to taste.

      5. Serve with clam cakes and more oyster crackers. I worked at the Rocky Point Chowder Hut in the 1980’s and this is same as theirs only they made it in 50-gallon batches.

      • David Leite says:

        Thanks, Billy. I grew up in Swansea, MA, and spent many a weekend in Rhode Island. Clear-broth clam chowder is what I had in many parts of the state. But…I have, indeed, had Rocky Point-stye chowder–which yours is an excellent example of–at Rocky Point. Thanks for adding the recipe to our chowder arsenal.

        • Billy DiPanni says:

          I still go Quahoging and Clamming mostly in Warwick. Many old timers still like the clear chowder best. The clear chowder was the most popular when I was a kid in the 40’s, but most places now sell the red or the white. I like them all, but the red is my favorite. Actually, it’s rather a pink red. I dislike the Manhattan, at least the ones I’ve had so far, as they remind me of vegetable soup. Speaking of Swansea, my favorite dish of all time is the 3-lb baked stuffed lobster at the Venus De Milo. It is absolutely the best I’ve ever had–and I’ve had many. They stuff the lobster with lobster not just cracker crumbs! Most places just give you a ton of cracker crumb, theirs has huge chunks of lobster inside the stuffing, it’s like getting two lobsters in one! What could be better?

          • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

            Billy, I honestly can’t think of anything that’d be better than lobster stuffed with lobster!

            • Billy DiPanni says:

              There is one place in Newport, RI called the Barking Crab that has a 10lb lobster served with 4 lbs of King Crab legs. I went there for my birthday and it was so good! Then there’s my other favorite of all time, Custy’s Seafood in Westerly, RI they have an all you can eat lobster buffet for 79.95, the 60 foot buffet table also has all the colossal tiger shrimp cocktail and juicy prime rib you can eat along with about 30 kinds of dessert! I am getting hungry just thinking about it. Stop in some day you won’t regret it.

              • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

                Billy, I was just yesterday flipping through Jane and Michael Stern’s most recent book in search of seafood joints along the East Coast for a road trip my husband and I want to take. I think we’ll be adding a couple stops in RI thanks to you…and I’m certain we won’t be the only ones who’ve read your comment and feel compelled to try it! I’ll report back with my awe and gratitude, and expect everyone else to as well, but in the meantime, thank you, Billy.

      • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

        I, too, know folks from RI who swoon to the clear chowder…and yet your version is making me wish I grew up near Rocky Point, Billy. Sounds really lovely…

  2. Louise Hyson says:

    What a wonderful tale of trading so that everyone had an enjoyable series of meals.

  3. Sean says:

    I know no true Rhode Islander who eats red chowder. Not sure where you get “most of us” from. :)

  4. robert tavares says:

    That doesn’t even resemble “clam chowdah”!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Actually, Robert, Rhode Island clam chowdah, or chowder, is traditionally unlike the classic New England clam chowder. Whereas the latter is the classic creamy chowder one tends to think of and to see on menus, the Rhode Island version is made with a clear broth—clam juice and water, naturally. It’s a little like New England clam chowder but without the cream or milk. Those who tend to favor this approach—including myself—feel the relatively wan broth doesn’t obstruct the briny flavors of the sea. So while not the chowdah that you think of, it is, indeed, still chowder, at least as far as Rhode Islanders are concerned.

      • Mary says:

        Grew up in Conn. with a sea loving father who was also a short order cook. This is the clam chowder he made (although no Worcestershire sauce) and it is still the BEST chowder ever. Served in a chowder mug, it IS the briny flavors of the sea! AHH!

        • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

          Lovely memory, Mary. You paint a charming picture of your childhood, thanks for sharing….

  5. Lisa S says:

    I will never find quahog clams here in NY. If I use littlenecks, how many do you think I need? I am so making this. Love your blog…keep it up!

    • David Leite says:

      Hi, Lisa S. It all depends, of course, upon size. The smaller the littleneck, the more prized they are for eating raw. But you want some bivalve meatiness in this and should go for the larger ones. I’d say try between 25 to 35 littlenecks.

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