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Maine’s Great Clam Chowder War of 1939

A tomato-hating politician from Rockland set off the Maine clam chowder war of 1939 when he prepared a bill to make it a crime to pollute clam chowder with tomato.

If found guilty, offenders would be sentenced to digging up a barrel of clams at high tide – which, as any clammer will tell you, is not only cruel and unusual punishment, but impossible.

The hands-down winner

The hands-down winner

State Rep. Cleveland Sleeper never got to file his bill, as the issue was resolved without government interference.

It was settled by a high-profile chowder contest judged by such luminaries as Gov. Lewis O. Barrows and Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate-chip cookie.

The Chowder War

Sleeper, who served in the Legislature from 1933-53, had facetiously prepared bills banning the tomato from clam chowder for several years. And then the Maine Hotel Association decided to settle the matter at its mid-winter frolic in Portland.

Sleeper brought his chef. His rival, Philadelphia restaurateur Harry Tully, brought his.

Sleeper’s chef cooked up traditional Maine clam chowder, while Tully’s made tomato-based Manhattan Clam Chowder. “Each appealed to the palates of a distinguished gallery of chowder epicures,” reported the Associated Press in the Nashua Telegraph. “The epicures, headed by Maine's Governor, Lewis O.Barrows, gravely sipped the rival concoctions."

Sleeper tried the Manhattan chowder. "Ugh, this is a vegetable soup, not clam chowder," he said.

The polluted loser

The polluted loser

“The tomato lends flavor to the clam,” retorted Tully.

Tully's Manhattan Clam Chowder didn’t stand a chance. The judges voted unanimously for its New England rival.

"Maine Chowder Wins Over Tomato-Type" read the Lewiston Sun Journal headline. "Rep. Sleeper's Campaign for "Unpolluted" Dish Is Successful.

The story went on:  "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."

Sleeper was triumphant. "If a clam could vote, I would be elected President," he crowed.

A year later, Eleanor Early picked up the anti-tomato crusade in her 1940 book, A New England Sampler

There is a terrible pink mixture (with tomatoes in it and herbs) 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.

Cleveland Sleeper went on to somewhat greater political heights. He served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary during World War II and was elected to the Maine state Senate in 1945. He and his wife, Doris Bradlee Sleeper, had two daughters and three sons. A Rotarian, he ran a fuel-oil business for many years.

In April 1956, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Rotarian in April 1956 praising the magazine.

Between The Rotarian, The Saturday Evening Post, Time magazine, and Rockland's basketball team, I have very little time for television or other modern falderals.

Or, we presume, Manhattan Clam Chowder.

For Jacques Pepin's New England Clam Chowder recipe, click here.

"ManhattanClamChowder" by stu_spivack - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated from the 2015 version. 

16 comments

  1. Christine McKenna

    I like the red too. Shhh. Don’t tell.

  2. Eric Foss

    This Mainer like his chowder with NO MADERS !

  3. Beth-Ann Scott

    In Manhattan chowder, sure. New England, no way.

  4. Bobo Leach

    No tomatoes in my chowder!

  5. Steve Magill

    I slip in a can of diced tomatoes next time and let ya know

  6. Steve Magill

    I slip in a can of diced tomatoes next time and let ya know

  7. Craig William Spencer

    They are all good as long as they have bacon in it.

  8. A new chowder war is coming over whether bacon belongs in chowder. We pescetarians want a choice!

  9. When I was much younger my family moved from New York to New England. I didn’t like Manhatten clam chowder when I lived in New York and certainly wouldn’t eat it by choice today! New England clam chowder is the only real chowder – no tomatoes!

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