New England clam chowder is serious business — the stuff of passionate prose and, in one case, government intervention. “A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for — or on — clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is ‘Yankee Doodle in a kettle,’ ” enthused early-20th-century writer Joseph C. Lincoln.
True enough: No less a literary hero than Ishmael fortified himself with the stuff before setting sail in “Moby-Dick.” And, in 1939, a bill was introduced in the Maine Legislature to make it illegal to add tomatoes to chowder.
It’s our marquee dish: a hearty bowlful of ocean tempered by bacon, potatoes, and cream. It’s what chili is to Cincinnati and deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. As such, it’s a litmus test for many local chefs.
“It’s the gold standard. When venturing into the world of making an iconic dish, whether it’s for your grandmother or someone who’s never had it, you’ve got to deliver,” says Island Creek Oyster Bar chef Jeremy Sewall, who’s known for his painstakingly prepared version.
Sewall’s is a two-day process originating with a house-made clam broth that rests overnight, flavored with bacon that he smokes and cures personally. The chowder is packed with house-chopped plump Wellfleet or Duxbury top neck clams and laced with bay leaves, thyme, and finished with half-and-half. The result is smoky and rich — a cashmere blanket of a dish, perfect for frosty evenings.
More ubiquitous is Legal Sea Foods’ clam chowder, which debuted in 1981 for about 25 cents, owner Roger Berkowitz recalls. The recipe was concocted by Berkowitz himself, and it’s still the version that most people associate with Boston. It’s traditional and rich: littleneck clams, salt pork, fish stock, garlic, onions, potatoes, and light cream. It hasn’t changed in more than 30 years, and it’s been served at every presidential inauguration since its debut. Nowadays, a bowlful of chowder is as commonplace at Fenway Park as a Fenway Frank, and it’s often the first taste of Boston for visitors flying into Logan Airport.
Legal took chowder mainstream, and these days it’s safe to experiment. At Beacon Hill’s Tip Tap Room, chef Brian Poe livens up his version with jalapenos and game meat. In the North End, Prezza’s Anthony Caturano garnishes his with cherry pepper aioli. And on Cape Cod, Adrian’s in North Truro (which closed in 2012) served a regal version anchored by a cube of crisped pork belly, bedecked with fresh clams pooling in a light broth. As the Globe’s restaurant critic Devra First noted in a 2011 review, “This dish is as much about bacon as it is about clams.”
The Maine Legislature might not have been amused, but it tasted delicious.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.