Tuesday, February 6, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

The One Unforgivable Sin: Putting Tomato In Clam Chowder

For wonderful anti-Californian Lesser Seattle weather, you can't beat the miserable stuff that nature has bestowed on us these past few weeks. Rain, wind, slop, and penetrating, bone-chilling dampness.


As any native knows, our baleful January-February climate demands stout, warming food. Not flaky little salads, not tofu, bean sprouts, vegetable dips and char-burned whitefish.

Ladies and gentlemen of Puget Sound, I am talking about real food. Such pneumonia-inducing weather calls for rib-sticking stews, corned beef and cabbage, boiled dinners and (if you are prosperous) a thick slab of prime rib.

And clams as in chowder.

Consider the clam. When the first Pilgrims arrived, the clam was there to greet them. Zillions of clams on pristine beaches could be had for digging. Out of this bounty came a dish to ward off the harsh cold of New England winters.

Thus was born New England chowder.

This gave the first European settlers the strength to go on. As generations passed they got down to some serious plundering, looting and land-grabbing, killing off Indians as they moved westward.

There was arrogance in this. In their insatiable greed, these tourists scarcely noticed local culture.

The Indians had life figured out - the women did all the work, the men went hunting and fishing, yet the white man had the effrontery to think he could improve on this system.

And so it was that our land-grabbing forefathers finally arrived on Puget Sound. These beaches - indeed, all the West Coast beaches - were alive with clams. Free for the taking. Energy-giving grub.

It was inevitable, then, that our Puget Sound forebears would put class in clam chowder. New England chowder came West, but there were setbacks.

One setback involved the first idiot who put tomatoes in chowder. He was obviously a transplanted New Yorker because the term, ``Manhattan clam chowder'' described this awful marriage of clams and tomatoes.

It was then advertised here as ``Puget Sound clam chowder.'' What a travesty!

Let us be blunt. The kind of person who would put tomatoes in clam chowder is the kind of person who would slurp champagne from a spoon.

Even the late great Ivar Haglund used some tomato-flavoring in his chowder. The result was a concoction that looked like it had already been eaten. Ivar was unrepentant to the end, possibly because he got rich off the stuff.

I once spent some time with Pierre Berton, the famed Canadian author and cook. We talked about Canadian history, his recipe for corned beef hash, and ultimately, his recipe for New England clam chowder.

In his long-ago book, ``Just Add Water and Stir,'' Berton tells about ordering ``New England clam chowder'' in the Connaught-Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton, Ontario. It came with tomatoes in it, a blatant fraud. It was really ``Manhattan clam chowder'' or, as it's sometimes called, ``Coney Island clam chowder.''

Berton charged into the kitchen and confronted the chef. When the chef admitted that, yes, he had used tomatoes, Berton stabbed him to death with an olive spear.

Hauled into court on a charge of murder, Mr. Berton was asked why he killed the cook. ``Because he made clam chowder with tomatoes,'' Berton replied.

``Naturally,'' he add, ``they set me free.''

Now, this is not a treatise on how to make New England chowder. Any cookbook worthy of your attention has a chowder recipe. But don't use tomatoes; otherwise, you'll be consigned straight to hell, which is just where you would belong.

There are as many subtle variations on making New England clam chowder as there are techniques of romance. In both endeavors, you are encouraged to experiment.

Clam chowder can retain its virtue if you favor any of the following ingredients - light curry, onion, bacon, thyme, celery salt, paprika, even evaporated milk. It's up to you.

New England clam chowder is the perfect antidote for our miserable Lesser Seattle weather. There is promise in each spoonful - that the sun will shine again.

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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