It is made from clams, onions, salt pork (or bacon), potatoes, and clam broth. It comes out light grey in colour.
Fans say it’s older than any other version of clam chowder. Purists sniff that it might be older, and it might be a clam soup, but without a white sauce, it ain’t chowder.
Many home cooks in Rhode Island start with the clear broth, and sometimes serve it this way, but then hand-written recipes will go on to say, you can also add cream, or tomato purée if you wish.
To really confuse things, Fannie Merritt Farmer in 1918 listed a recipe for “Rhode Island Chowder” which included milk. *And* tomatoes.
To make a further distinction between chowders, sometimes the clear chowder, in Rhode Island at least, is referred to as Block Island Chowder, where (unless otherwise specified), it’s always a clear broth.
Literature & Lore
Rhode Island Chowder
1 quart clams
1 cup stewed and strained tomatoes
3 inch cube fat salt pork
1 sliced onion
1/4 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup scalded milk
4 cups potatoes cut in 3/4 inch cubes
1 cup scalded cream
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups boiling water
8 common crackers
Salt and pepper
Cook pork with onion and cold water ten minutes; drain, and reserve liquor. Wash clams and reserve liquor. Parboil potatoes five minutes, and drain. To potatoes add reserved liquors, hard part of clams finely chopped, and boiling water. When potatoes are nearly done, add tomatoes, soda, soft part of clams, milk, cream, and butter. Season with salt and pepper. Split crackers, soak in cold milk to moisten, and reheat in chowder. — Fannie Merritt Farmer. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1918 Edition). Boston: Little, Brown. 1918