How Tomatoes In Clam Chowder Almost Became Illegal In Maine

For most, food is an intensely personal experience. While some preferences can sometimes become jokingly competitive — such as chocolate vs. vanilla, Taylor ham vs. pork roll, peanut butter vs. jelly, or chicken breasts vs. thighs — rarely does the rivalry elevate to legalistic territories. When it comes to clam chowder in Massachusetts, though, that's precisely what happened, explains WCYY

Clam chowder is an adored, iconic, thick, clam-focused soup that invites plenty of "this vs. that" preference conversations, for example, New England vs. Manhattan differentiations are an often hotly contested topic. New England chowder contains a creamy base with clams, potatoes, and oyster crackers, while Manhattan chowders are characterized by a more tomato-based, vegetal essence. There are other variations, too, including the Rhode Island and Long Island variants. So, what aspect of this much-loved dish got fans so revved up as to attempt to pass a law outlawing a particular ingredient? 

The offending ingredient that was said to ruin properly made clam chowder

According to the New England Historical Society, in 1939, Cleveland Sleeper, a political representative for Maine, tried to introduce a bill that would criminalize adding tomatoes to clam chowder. Believe it or not, the punishment for not abiding by this proposed law was apparently that the offending party would have to "dig up a barrel of clams at high tide," which certainly makes the entire story seem a bit dubious.

Supposedly, the next step in this far-fetched gastronomic saga was that the Maine Hotel Association hosted a cook-off to dictate the ideal chowder once and for all. Sleeper's chef's chowder was placed against a tomato-laced chowder made by a Philadelphia chef. The New England chowder won, but instead of passing the law, "headlines brought shame to those who would dare consider adding tomato to a New England treasure." 

The New England Historical Society does indeed note that the bills were "facetiously prepared," though. As stated by the Lewiston Sun Journal in 1939, "good old-fashioned New England clam chowder drew the nod of epicures here today in a battle de cuisine with its big-city sister, tomato-impregnated Manhattan clam chowder."

While the debate between the chowders rages on, this purported law obviously never went into effect. So feel free to add a bounty of tomatoes to your next homemade chowder with nary a concern for the legal ramifications.