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New Jersey, Not Manhattan, Clam Chowder

Updated on January 6, 2015

Clam Digging Communites

My father was born in Highlands NJ in 1907 to an English Methodist mother and an Irish Catholic father. The stories told by my grandmother of families that never spoke and punitive churches are ingrained deep into my early childhood memories along with many others that were sweet and summery. We visited my Grandmother every year and I would spend every summer swimming beneath the drawbridge, on the beach at Sandlass Beach Club in Sea Bright or fishing and crabbing from the dock next to Bahrs Landing. In the evening I would watch, from the front porch rocker, the revolving Fresnel beacon of the Navesink Lighthouse, or Twin Lights, high on the hill above town. My grandmother, or my aunt who lived with her, would often serve up a pot of red orange clam chowder. It was a hearty potato filled dish that was loaded with clams that were harvested by neighbors. My father told me that it was a staple, made by everyone in the area when he was a child, as clams, were the most readily available, and free, source of protein. Unlike the chowder of New England where milk or cream is used to create the soup, tomatoes were plentiful as was home canned tomato “sauce” and that was the base. Milk was too expensive to create the gallons of chowder, and was saved mostly for the infants and children. A great deal of the population clammed for a living, or to simply provide food for their families, along with crabbing and fishing. Bluefish were plentiful in summer and were also cooked with local tomatoes, onions and bacon or salt pork to cut the oily taste. The people of the Highlands were resourceful and utilized any means available to feed their families including rum running by many, during prohibition.

Loaded with fresh clams and potatoes, the red orange color of Jersey Shore chowder is from the local tomatoes and salt pork.
Loaded with fresh clams and potatoes, the red orange color of Jersey Shore chowder is from the local tomatoes and salt pork.

A Staple of the Local Diet Over a Century Ago

Recently, while searching the archive of the Red Bank Register, a local newspaper that dates to the mid 1800’s, I became aware by many references that this chowder was common food for church fund raisers, parties and lodge dinners as early as the 1870’s. Restaurants would also serve it for a few cents per bowl, along with oysters, mackerel, bluefish and soft crabs. This is contrary to the accepted history that it was first made by Chef De Filippini of the Delmonico Hotel in New York in 1889 or by the Portuguese immigrants. It does make perfect sense that a version of this chowder would have been made by both the Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island and also the Italians in New York due to their heavy use of the tomato and seafood, but that would be purely coincidental. The Italians would be more likely to add macaroni rather than potatoes. One account, by a well known and accepted Cable TV food source that I located on the web, said that there is no mention of tomato based clam chowder prior to 1930. This is totally unfounded. While the term Manhattan Clam Chowder, along with Fulton Clam Chowder and Coney Island Chowder all evolved around that time, the briny concoction has its roots deep in the peasant cuisine of the Jersey Shore. One news article from the Red Bank Register in 1912 lists the ingredients as they were brought to someone’s home. “Also some brought potatoes, and some brought clams, and some brought onions, and some brought salt, and some brought pepper, and some brought tomato sauce, and some brought other things which go to make up a clam chowder.” In earlier printings of that same paper accounts of it being served to crowds are found dating back as far as the 1870’s. Where the term Manhattan got applied was probably from the restaurants that served it in New York after the owners visited the Jersey Shore on vacation. The New Englanders still consider it an abomination and Maine even passed legislature banning the use of the tomato in chowder.

The Simple Recipe

As passed on to me, along with a little refinement that may have occurred inadvertently over the years, here is a Jersey Clam Chowder from the region of NorthernMonmouthCounty. Clam diggers still struggle to make a living in this region today. A purification plant has been opened locally to ensure the clams are safe before going to market. This recipe has been scaled down in proportion. It would not be uncommon for 20 gallons or more to be made a century ago for a large gathering.

12 large chowder clams (scrubbed)

5 medium eastern potatoes peeled and diced (Not Idaho or Yukon Gold)

One medium yellow onion diced

1 ½ celery stalks diced

One small piece of salt pork diced (about two tablespoons)

20 ounces of Jersey tomatoes, peeled and crushed by hand into small pieces (or one 20 oz can of crushed tomatoes).

One carrot diced (optional)

Fresh or dried thyme

2 bay leaves

Black pepper to taste.

Place clams into a heavy pot with two cups of water. Cover and steam until opened. Save broth. Coarsely slice the soft parts of the clams and mince the tough parts. Set aside.

Slowly render the salt pork in a heavy pot with a little oil if necessary to produce enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Remove salt pork when brown and crisp. Add onions and celery and cook until almost soft. Add tomatoes and clam broth along with salt pork cracklings, potatoes and optional carrots. Add the bay leaf and half of the thyme along with black pepper. Simmer for as long as it takes for the potatoes to become tender. This will be when the sharp corners of the potatoes become rounded and the starch begins to thicken the broth. Stir in clams, and additional thyme to taste, and heat through. Do not cook the clams any further or they will become tough. Keep warm until ready to serve or serve immediately. This will serve four persons one large bowl.

Perfect chowder should have the taste of the summer garden and the flavor and aroma of the shore with the bay leaf and thyme providing the perfect accent . When eaten, it should bring to mind the supper of hard working locals enjoying a warming bowl on a damp and foggy night in the quiet riverside towns in North Coastal Monmouth County. James Beard once referred to it as vegetable soup with a few clams added. He obviously never enjoyed it as it should be, loaded with fresh dug clams and their liquor and made with ripe Jersey tomatoes.

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