Illegal To Add Tomatoes to Clam Chowder in Massachusetts?


It’s illegal in Massachusetts to add tomatoes to clam chowder.



Ask most New Englanders for their opinion on tomatoes in clam chowder, and you’re almost certain to get a pithy, accented, and strongly opinionated response. (Trust us on this one, we saved you the hassle and asked a few ourselves.) 

That’s because the debate on the supremacy of creamy New England chowder over tomato-based Manhattan chowder goes back decades. Some on the internet claim that Massachusetts went so far as to make it illegal to add tomatoes to its famed creamy soup. 

Iterations of the claim persist across the internet, such as the example shared on Reddit below: 

Massachusetts 1939; a bill making tomatoes in clam chowder illegal, was passed.
byu/unimaginativeuser110 inboston

Snopes found no evidence that putting tomatoes in clam chowder was illegal in the Bay State as of this writing in June 2024. It’s possible that such a law was drafted or proposed at some point during Massachusetts’ nearly 250-year history, but our newsroom found no record of such a law (or proposed law) in the state legislative archives dating back to 1629. 

For these reasons, we have rated this claim “False.”  

The internet is rife with users willing to argue the superiority of either Manhattan or New England-style clam chowder. The former is often made with a rich tomato broth, while the latter has a thick, creamy base. At the heart of both types, of course, are the signature summer seafood, clams. 

Many posts credited this claim to the ABC news affiliate WCVB, which reported in April 2021 that it was “once forbidden to use tomatoes in New England clam chowder.” However, the outlet did not identify or link to a specific law to corroborate the claim. 

Snopes contacted the archives at the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In an email, Reference Archivist Conor Snow told our newsroom that the Massachusetts Archives “holds all passed and unpassed legislation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 1629-present.” 

Snow recommended our newsroom search the Massachusetts General Court’s website, which returned seven results for “chowder,” two of which called for New England clam chowder to be the official state dish or appetizer.  As of this publication, however, there was no record of a bill proposed or passed that called for banning tomatoes in chowder. 

“Looking at the seven results for chowder on the General Court’s website, it does not look like any of those bills passed the legislature and became a passed act/resolve,” wrote Snow. 

At Snow’s recommendation, we also dug through the Massachusetts Library digital repository and the state Acts and Resolves internet archive, neither of which returned relevant results (viewable here and here). Similarly, a search through the Massachusetts state law database did not return any results for “chowder.” 

It appears that some online users may have confused Massachusetts with its northern neighbor, Maine, which indeed saw a legal spat over chowder ingredients nearly 100 years ago. 

In Rockland, Maine, the 1930s marked years of contention, dubbed the “Clam Chowder War by the New England Historical Society, after former state Rep. Cleveland Sleeper drafted a bill that would criminalize putting tomatoes in clam chowder. Guilty offenders, according to the society, “would have to dig up a barrel of clams at high tide.” 

But the bill would never be debated in the Pine Tree State’s legislature. Mainers chose instead to settle the dispute with a high-profile chowder contest. 

The contest was described in an Associated Press article that ran in The Nashua Telegraph on March 4, 1939, titled “Maine Bars Tomatoes From That Clam Chowder.” It read: 

The epicures, headed by Maine’s Governor, Lewis O. Barrows, gravely sipped the rival concoctions yesterday and solemnly concurred that the tomato-less creation had what it takes to tickle the taster. 

The New England chowder, in which salt pork is de rigueur, was brewed under the supervision of State Representative Cleveland Sleeper, Jr. of Rockland, who has filed a bill in the Maine legislature to make it “criminal” to “sully” clam chowder with tomatoes. 

The Manhatten was constructed under the watchful eye of Harry Tully, Philadelphia restaurateur and president of the International Steward’s and Caterer’s association. 

“Ugh,” said Sleeper, after cautiously tasting the Manhatten, “this is vegetable soup, not clam chowder.” 

“The tomato,” Tully replied with fine scorn, “lends flavor to the clam.” 

One of the chowder judges, who at the time served as vice president of the American Hotel Association, “observed that the Manhattan should be dubbed ‘Tomato a la Clam,’ and that the clam was merely an intruder in a good tomato soup.”  The Telegraph article continued:

Tully and his chef de cuisine Juilius Savineur, smilingly conceded defeat and admitted that the New England standby was supreme. 

“If a clam could vote,” crowed Sleeper in triumph, ” I would be elected president.”

The Lewiston Daily Sun also described the chowder competition in a March 4, 1939, article titled, “Maine Chowder Wines Over Tomato-Type.” It read, in part: 

For weeks the differing schools of chowder thought had argued the merits or demerits of clam chowder with and without tomatoes. 

State Representative Cleveland Sleeper of Rockland, who has facetiously introduced a bill into the Maine Legislature to make ‘tomato pollution” of the chowder a “crime,” vigorously championed the New England school….

Flanked by their chefs today, Tully and Sleeper brewed their favorite recipes in the dining room of a mid-town hotel and appealed to the palates of a distinguished galaxy of chowder epicures, including Maine’s Governor Barrows, for a verdict. 

If nothing else, this claim serves as evidence that the debate over which reigns supreme, New England or Manhattan chowder, is one still alive and well in the hearts of New Englanders (ask any of them).

Snopes has previously investigated weird and wild laws that were allegedly proposed, passed and in some cases repealed, such as the claim that camel hunting is illegal in Arizona, the claim that it’s illegal for Japanese citizens “to be fat,” and the claim that a California law prohibits hotel guests from peeling oranges in their rooms. Read more here.


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