All Rhode Islanders of a certain age have fond memories of seafood at Rocky Point. The old-fashioned amusement park operated in Warwick Neck—just south of Providence—from about 1847 to 1995. The terrifying Free Fall ride, as well as the tamer Ferris wheel, offered riders some of the best waterfront views in the state, which is impressive, considering Rhode Island boasts over 400 miles of coastline. My last memory of the park is riding the Corkscrew roller coaster five times in a row at a friend’s birthday party. That day, Rocky Point was so empty that nobody else was waiting in line. It was great fun having the park to ourselves, but it didn’t exactly bode well for business.
The amusement park closed about twenty years ago, and while the Corkscrew may be long gone, one piece of Rocky Point’s legacy lives on. The park didn’t serve the clear-broth chowder known today as “Rhode Island style.” The chowder also wasn’t gluey like the stuff from Boston or chunky, like Manhattan chowder, packed with green peppers and celery and chunks of tomato. Instead, this briny chowder was full of quahogs—a large clam—enriched with tomatoes, paprika, and starch from diced potatoes and Pilot crackers, creating a pink broth.
A sharp, briny kick balanced by a touch of acid from tomatoes
I first tasted Rocky Point’s chowder on my seventh birthday. My memories of it are obscured by thoughts of roller coasters or getting soaked on the water slides. I was most interested in the rides, but my father insisted I eat a few spoonfuls from his bowl. It was unlike any chowder I’d had before. The sharp, briny kick was balanced by a touch of acid from the tomatoes, and there were no pieces of intimidating parsley or dill floating around on the surface.
I was eventually convinced that only New Yorkers put tomatoes in chowder, and didn’t eat red chowder again for years. But a recent trip home to Rhode Island brought back memories of the food at Rocky Point. I learned that a handful of clam shacks, clustered around Warwick and Narragansett (an idyllic coastal New England town), still served red chowder, so I drove across the state in search of it.
The history of chowder is a murky one. The word itself is likely derived from the French chaudière, or cauldron, but it’s unclear whether French, Nova Scotian, or British fishermen introduced it to the Northeastern United States. “The first chowders were made by fishermen who would be out to sea and use some of their catch to make something to eat,” explains Linda Beaulieu, author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook. “They probably used salt water because fresh water was at a premium.”
The first formal recipe for chowder appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1751. Back then, ingredients usually included fish, seafood, and various vegetables. Milk wasn’t added until the mid-nineteenth century, and it was only occasionally added at that time. Today, white New England clam chowder has conquered much of Rhode Island, served at restaurants and clam shacks across the state.