For most of us, the words “clam chowder” instantly conjure the same image: a bowl of white, milky broth with chopped clams and plenty of potatoes. And that’s exactly what you’ll get when you order a bowl throughout most of coastal New England, the chowder epicenter of America.
But not necessarily in Rhode Island. There, you might be presented with a choice: creamy, or not. The Ocean State, you see, is the last bastion of clam chowder in its oldest and purest form, with clam broth as the only liquid. You can get the dairy in it or on the side if you wish, but I recommend that you hold off altogether, just as many old-time Rhode Islanders do.
I can’t tell you why Rhode Islanders cling to their “clear” chowder. But, having spent a lot of time there, much of it passed sampling clear chowders up and down the coast, I can tell you that clear is, hands down, my favorite kind of clam chowder.
Clear chowder shares most of the same components as other New England-style chowders: clams (the large, hard-shell kind called quahogs — pronounced “ko-hogs” — common in Massachusetts and Rhode Island but less so in Maine, apparently); a cured pork product, such as salt pork or bacon; onions; bay leaves; and potatoes.
In fact, in 50 Chowders — his terrific paean to chowder of all stripes, and a book that I have cooked my way through from front to back — the noted New England chef Jasper White refers to Rhode Island clear as “a chowder anatomy lesson [because] you can see all the parts floating in the broth.”
Without the distraction of milk, cream, or the tomatoes found in Manhattan-style chowders and some others further south, I find that good clear chowder packs a superhero-style mollusky punch that others don’t quite match. While all the ingredients create a flavor harmony that practically screams “New England!,” there’s no question that the star of the bowl is the clams, in all their briny, umami-packed glory.
Quahogs, also referred to by some old-guard New Englanders as “chowder clams,” are huge; each one typically weighs 8 to 12 ounces, and sometimes as much as a full pound. Dwelling in sand and mud flats, they’re an East Coast beast, the smaller versions of which are called littlenecks (around 2 ounces/2 inches per clam), cherrystones (a little larger, at around 3 ounces/3 inches per clam, and the common raw-bar choice for clams on the half shell), and top necks (around 4 ounces per clam).
I’ve found that sand and mud can cling tenaciously — and seemingly invisibly — to quahogs, so scrub them well before cooking. In fact, you may also want to rinse the cooked clams after removing them from the shells, too. Also, it’s worth keeping a close eye on the pot while they steam open, because they create foam that sometimes boils over. If you sense an impending boil-over, remove the pot lid briefly until the foam dies down, then continue.
For such a small state, Rhode Island boasts an abundance of local specialties, including the simple cornmeal pancakes called johnnycakes, the stuffed quahogs called stuffies, the spicy Sloppy Joe sandwiches called dynamites, Del’s Frozen Lemonade (like a fine-grained lemon slushie), the coffee milkshake (or “frappe” in Rhode Island and Massachusetts) called a coffee cabinet, and the state drink, coffee milk (think chocolate milk with coffee-flavored syrup instead of chocolate).
They all have their charms, to be sure, but if you ask me, clear clam chowder is the dish that epitomizes Rhode Island at its very best.