Friday, February 02, 2007

Chowderheads

Editor's note: Congratulations to Bob Holt of Gaffney's for winning Chowderfest. The victory is the second for one of the Spa City's most stalwart and adept cooks. Let's not cheapen his victory by using the hackneyed term chef; Bob's got the scars to prove his skill.

Some folks just don't get it. Despite centuries worth of rich tradition --pun quite intended --there are those who simply don't understand that any chowder recipe must abide by a few basic concepts, namely that potatoes are a necessary if not vital ingredient.

Take for example the so-called chef of Wheatfields, who thought it proper to enter the city's annual Chowderfest with an entry of chicken, corn with lime and fried pepper linguine chowder. While this may be an original entry --and sounds on the border of a culinary disaster --it is certainly not a chowder.

But one can't castigate Wheatfields' epicurean for trying. Take instead the entry from The Bread Basket on Spring Street, which apparently won last year in the "Best Off Broadway" category with a spinach leek soup.

Soup? What is this soupfest? When you enter a pie-eating eating contest, you eat pies. When you enter a chili cook-off, you cook chili. So as logic would have it, when you enter a Chowderfest, you prepare chowder; not stew, not bisque, not soup, but a chowder. Say it Frenchie. Say Chowdah.

With downtown's ninth annual Chowderfest competition just hours away, perhaps some of the entrants could use a quick refresher, just in case they reached for the blender instead of the russets. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines chowder as "a thick soup or stew made of clams, fish, or vegetables, with potatoes, onions, and other ingredients and seasonings," which indeed lends to loose interpretations of what does and does not constitute the hearty soup.

The debate over how and where exactly chowder was derived wages on to this day. The Oxford English Dictionary roots chowder back to the Latin word "calderia," a term meaning "place for warming things" or the root of the ordinary English word "cauldron." But before the Brits could hammer down their new-found bi-syllabic term, a band of Frenchmen from Normandy wandered by and --in their quest to make ordinary terms sound more haute and pompous --threw out the word "chaudiere."

The derivative cup had almost fallen back across the English Channel when suddenly out of nowhere, a rot-toothed fishmonger from Cornwall region of Southwestern England
surfaced in the debate, insisting the term had indeed come from the British Isle. The rather dodgy fellow adamantly claimed the bloody Fracs had plucked the old-English word "jowter," meaning fish peddler, and bastardized for their own purposes.

In the meantime, the Puritans from the north had embarked upon a long scurvy-ridden journey to the New World, where they encountered a bizarre group of northern savages that took great pleasure in plucking mollusks from their shells. So much pleasure, in fact, they piled shells nearly 10 feet high. But being the slow learners they were, the interloping pilgrims ignored for years the bizarre concoction the natives seemed to take great pleasure in quaffing down.

It wasn't until nearly a century later when a voice of reason spoke amid the roiling colonies to declare that indeed, mixing fish with salted pork and potatoes wasn't a bad idea. And henceforth was born, the first precursor to the New England Chowder. The most rudimentary chowder took the form of simple boiled fish, crumbled crackers and a smidgen of salted pork. To this, they added potatoes, pickles, mangos, apple sauce or whatever wasn't nailed to the floor.

As fate would have it, the modern chowder didn't really take hold until the later 19th century or so, somewhere around the time New York was formally divorced from New England. The later of the two quickly seized the chowder mantle with gusto, dumping an artery-clogging amount of cream into their potion of spuds and bi-valves to create what many regard as the prototypical clam chowder.

With New England boasting proudly of their new creation, the bourgeois of southern New York roiled with the thought of being outdone by a pack of under-educated bean-loving woodchucks. Quickly in the posh eateries of Manhattan, a plot was hatched to again reign supreme over the rich dish. Dispatching with the cream and adding the more health-conscious tomato, New Yorkers hatched the Manhattan Chowder, which to this day, battles for supremacy over its northern neighbor.

Of course, New Englanders wouldn't take such a move lying down. So in a move of both stupidity and gusto, a Maine legislator known only by the name Seeder pitched a law that would make it both a statutory and culinary offence to introduce tomatoes into the traditional chowder recipe. Needless to say, the law never went into effect and Seeder --if that's his real name --was quickly ushered out of office and into obscurity.

Today, fierce competitions occur throughout the northeast in vain attempt to resolve the age-old disputes that chowder left in wake of its creation. In the Spa City, the challenge first took hold in 1997, when the Bureau of Convention and Tourism sponsored the event to replace the once heralded "Soups of Saratoga" competition. From there, the rest was chowder lore

Nine years later, the "competition," as they still call it, encompasses more than 40 restaurants across the city and now in neighboring Ballston Spa. So grab your spoon Saturday and hit the streets. Just remember to vote for an entry that actually boasts chowder-worthy ingredients, not one of the half-baked chowderheads that don't know a bisque from the hearty dish of goodness that keeps the greater northeast warm and fat on those frosty days.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Now you're the chowder police. Thanks for you incite.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Bart Simpson said...

"Say it Frenchie. Say Chowdah"
Please tell me that's in reference to the Simpsons.

10:24 AM  

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