There are Rhode Islanders, and then there are Rhode Islanders. The Durfee family is the latter, as in, they can trace their ancestry back to one Thomas Durfee, who arrived in Portsmouth on the northern tip of Aquidneck Island from Essex, England in 1660. One indentured servitude term and 17 years later, Durfee would secure a license to “sell victuals and drink to travelers, and to afford them entertainment as may be needful and convenient.” Hospitality, it seems, runs in Durfee DNA.
“King Philip’s brother was named Wamasutta, and he was friends with my ancestor, so the story goes,” begins Kevin Durfee, the third-generation owner of George’s of Galilee in Narragansett, referencing Metacom, the leader of the Wampanoag Tribe who was given the regal title by white colonists. “They traded recipes and became good friends,” explains Durfee on how quahogs made their way into an English soup. Quahogs were a staple food for Rhode Island’s Pokanoket Tribe and Wampanoag nation, and Durfee says the Rhode Island clam chowder served at his family restaurant has not changed much from the way it was made centuries ago.
Rhode Island clam chowder is not much at all like it’s creamier and, let’s face it, more famous cousin, New England clam chowder. It’s the Jamie Lynn Spears to Britney, the Frank Stallone to Sylvester. And that’s understandable. Rhode Island clam chowder, also known as Rhode Island clear broth clam chowder (the latter name a lesson in setting expectations), is decidedly simple – typically just a handful of ingredients: cherrystones or quahogs, bacon or salt pork,
maybe butter, maybe not, diced onions, sliced or cubed potatoes and celery, clam broth and/or clam juice, herbs (which can include bay leaves, dill, thyme, chives, and/or parsley), and salt and pepper. But a simple ingredient lift doesn’t necessarily mean the chowder is simple to pull off. “It may seem very very basic, but if you ever taste a steamer, littleneck, or any type of clam, they are extremely delicate flavors, so you really don’t want to mess it up,” warns Durfee.
And the chowder’s simplicity also doesn’t mean it lacks serious street cred. “Clear chowder is the traditional Rhode Island way,” says well-known water-man and owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar, Perry Raso, with such conviction you might expect to hear someone shout an “Amen!” from the back of the room. When he opened the restaurant on Potter Pond nearly 15 years ago, which he has since expanded to include a lauded destination aquaculture farm, as well, Rhode Island clam chowder was a menu non-negotiable, quickly becoming a staple. “At a New England seafood restaurant, clam chowder is really important, and in Rhode Island, you’ve got to have clear chowder,” explains Raso. “It embodies Rhode Island because of the importance of quahogs here in the state, and having grown up on the coastal salt ponds and harvesting quahogs and steamers, this is the comfort food made with those local shellfish.”
“Comfort food,” for Durfee, is an understatement and his childhood memories include clamming just steps from George’s when his grandfather owned the place, and Rhode Island chowder was a household staple. “I grew up on it, and my kids grew up on it,” he says. “If my kids were ever home sick when they were young, instead of chicken noodle soup, they got Rhode Island clam chowder.”
Creamy New England chowder, Durfee says, “wasn’t even a thing” back in the day. He only added it to George’s menu in the past decade or so in a decision that wasn’t taken lightly. “My father would roll over in his grave if he ever knew that I did that because he just stuck to his guns. There are a lot of locals – they call themselves Swamp Yankees – that are like, ‘I don’t want that New England crap!’”
Even when they first tested the market by making creamy New England clam chowder a special, they’d get push back from locals. “They’d say, ‘I can’t believe you are selling out! I can’t believe you’re doing this!’”
On the George’s of Galilee menu, patrons will find the New England clam chowder labeled, “For you ‘thick’ chowder lovers,” and the Rhode Island clam chowder offered two ways: plain, which is standard, or “tomato,” which is the standard clear broth chowder with some tomato juice added.
But wait, there’s more! There’s a lesser-known, secret chowder known almost exclusively to locals: milk chowder, also known as white chowder. “When [my grandfather] ran the place…what we sold at the time was Rhode Island clam broth chowder, and we would put a little bit of half-and-half in it. They called it ‘milk chowder’ or ‘white chowder,’ but it was still a Rhode Island clam broth chowder with just a little cream in it, but not to be confused with New England clam chowder,” reveals Durfee. “Whenever somebody wants the white chowder that we offered years ago, it is usually a local, and that’s the way they liked it since they were a grandkid, and we’ll do it under the radar.” Durfee describes most of these folks as “old fashioned, Swamp Yankee, salt-of-the-earth” people, hard-working farmers or fisherman much of the time, and he’s pleased to serve their chowder any way they like.
Chefs and restaurateurs in these parts can be particular about how they prepare their chowder. Durfee’s culinary team at George’s keeps the recipe pure: chopped clams and quahogs, clam broth, salted pork, and potatoes. “I know people get a little froufrou with it. They will cook different types of vegetables in there, maybe leave the skin on the potatoes. They add all kinds of herbs. But ours is just a simple, original recipe that goes back so far and you either love it or hate it.” Raso’s Rhode Island chowder is a little more herb-forward, and he prefers skin on, whether using Yukon Gold or other all-purpose potatoes.
For Jon Smith, manager at Greenwich Bay Oyster Bar in East Greenwich, the simplicity of Rhode Island clam chowder makes it the foundation of all three chowders that they serve – that’s right, three. Manhattan clam chowder has entered the chat.
“I say it’s the basis of all three chowders. We render down with the bacon fat, we shuck the quahogs and chop ‘em up, add the fresh clam stock, red potatoes – skin on – and just some fresh thyme,” says Smith. “It’s pretty straightforward for us. In seafood dishes, you want to let the seafood shine.”
Smith says the oyster bar does get a good amount of travelers through their doors who need a quick tutorial on clear broth chowder. “It’s amazing how many people don’t even know what it is,” he says, “but some of the locals, as well – sometimes they are taken back that there’s a third chowder.” Others, however, know exactly what it is and come specifically for their briny bowl. He says while New England clam chowder dominates, nearly a third of all chowder orders at the restaurant are for the Rhode Island style.
Executive chef Aaron Lambert at Two Ten Oyster Bar & Grill in South Kingstown says fresh and simple is the only way to make Rhode Island clam chowder. Having earned his stripes in kitchens throughout South County, he’s proud he brought the purest form of the clear broth-style chowder to the menu. “Housemade, original recipe,” he says. Yes to celery, onion, butter, fresh minced clams, and peeled and diced Idaho potatoes; no to bacon and salted pork.
“If you really know chowder, you’ve got to have your Rhode Island chowder,” says the chef. “The ‘clamminess’ really comes from Rhode Island [chowder], and if you don’t have that down, you really don’t have the New England either.” In the summertime, he says, Two Ten Oyster Bar will serve about 100 pounds of Rhode Island chowder in a single week.
Back at George’s of Galilee, Durfee says Rhode Island chowder is woven into the very fabric of the Ocean State’s identity. “When people visit Rhode Island, they have to try Del’s lemonade, they have to try coffee milk, New York System wieners, and you have to try Rhode Island chowder at George’s.”
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