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What Caused the Great Clam Chowder War of 1939?

It is believed that the clam chowder we are all familiar with today was introduced by the French, Nova Scotian, and British Settlers. This eventually became a staple dish by the 1700s. While there are different variations of the dish, did you know that it was illegal to use tomatoes in the soup?

Cleveland Sleeper, a Maine State Representative, hated tomatoes. He drafted a bill to outlaw the use of tomatoes in clam chowder in 1929. The punishment for breaking the law was to dig up a barrel of clams at high tide which was virtually impossible.

The Great Clam Chowder War of 1939

It was no secret back then that Cleveland Sleeper, the Maine State Representative, hated tomatoes. In fact, in 1939, he drafted a bill to criminalize making clam chowder with tomatoes. The offenders would have to dig up a barrel of clams during a high tide. Any clammer would tell that it is not only a cruel punishment, but it was quite impossible to accomplish. Fortunately, the bill never got filed, and the clam chowder war ended without any government interference.

But that wasn’t all. The Maine Hotel Association decided to put a stop to the issue in its mid-winter frolic in Portland. At this time, Sleeper called in his chef, and his rival Harry Tully, a Philadelphian restauranteur, brought his. Sleeper’s chef cooked a traditional Maine clam chowder at the event, while Tully’s chef made a tomato-based Manhattan Clam Chowder.

Each appealed to the palates of a distinguished gallery of chowder epicures. The epicures, headed by Maine’s Governor, Lewis O. Barrows, gravely sipped the rival concoctions.

Associated Press, Nashua Telegraph

Upon tasting the tomato-based clam chowder, Sleeper expressed his disgust by saying that it was not clam chowder but vegetable soup. But Tully explained how the tomato actually elevates the dish by lending flavor to the clam. Sadly, Tully’s Manhattan Clam Chowder did not stand a chance against the classic. The judges unanimously voted for the New England rival instead. (Source: New England Historical Society)

Sleeper Gloating Over His Win

After the event, headlines read: 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. Needless to say, Sleeper milked this win for all it was worth.

If a clam could vote, I would be elected President

Cleveland Sleeper, Maine State Representative

(Source: New England Historical Society)

Did Anyone Else Hope on this Crusade?

A year after the clam chowder cook-off, Eleanor Early went on her own crusade against the tomato-based version of the soup that she wrote about it in her book A New England Sampler.

here is a terrible pink mixture called Manhattan Clam Chowder, that is only a vegetable soup, and not to be confused with New England Clam Chowder, nor spoken of in the same breath. Tomatoes and clams have no more affinity than ice cream and horseradish.

Eleanor Early, A New England Sampler

(Source: New England Historical Society)

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