A crowd has gathered, red and white…
If anyone has any questions as to which is favored more, white (New England) or red (Manhattan) clam chowder, all you have to do is attend the annual ChowderFest on Long Beach Island.
I’ll begin by stating that I like New England Clam Chowder, heretofore known as ‘white’. I’ll eat the red, if I need to stay alive.
White clam chowder is simple of ingredients, yet complex in flavor. The delicate subtleties of the ingredients play off of, and complement, each other. The red is vegetable soup with calms in it, and every bit as complex – which is to say, not much. If I want to eat vegetable soup with clams in it, I’ll make vegetable soup and add clams.
I’ve eaten a lot of vegetable soup, with or without supplemental protein. Beans, chicken, turkey, beef, pork, mutton, fish chunks, mussels, scallops – and clams. But I never was a ‘fish and tomatoes’ kind of guy. So when someone jumps up on their milk crate (where the hell are you going to find a ‘soap box’ these days?) and begins proclaiming the virtues of their beloved Manhattan Clam Chowder, I know I am dealing with a culinary narrow minded, albeit opinionated, vegetable soup eater.
And I have no use for such individuals.
Of course, some chef extraordinaire came up with the idea of mixing the two. Pink Chowder, he called it. I called it slop. It was a poor example of culinary inspiration and more likely than not the result of dumping one pot into another. Had this man no sense of decency? You don’t mix white and red chowder together no more than you would cross two proton streams.
To be fair, both chowders were born out of available ingredients at the time. New England, rife with potatoes, onions and milk; Manhattan, always the cultural center, had more options.
For me, red has too many vegetables imparting too many different flavors and textures. This isn’t some kind of multi-cultural city were throwing together, it’s clam chowder! I want to taste clams, pepper, a hint of onion, a dash of sage, thyme, maybe tarragon.
More so, I like the milk base. It doesn’t have to be a heavy or thick, although that is good, too. I want to chomp down onto a clam, a potato or an onion chunk, in that order. I don’t want to be enjoying a clam piece and have a hunk of tomato decide to join the party, followed by a corn kernel, a carrot or a slice of freaking okra. And keep the oregano for your salad dressing or pizza.
Clam chowder can be as family specific as any pot of gravy (sauce) and every bit as off limits to outsiders. I dated a girl who had family in Hyannis Port, MA. Hard corps New Englanders. Great clam chowder. While not a heavy cream/milk base, it was still white. There was a lot of black pepper, potatoes, onions and clams. A person could grow fat on it in short order. The recipe would not be shared. I have not found anything close to it.
Most folks tend to fall on one side or the other, with a heavy leaning towards white. At least, that is what I can tell from my observations at the Chowder Fest.
How can such lines be drawn over a cauldron of clam soup; milk, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, or otherwise?
There are a lot of people – hence the ‘fest’ part of ChowderFest and as such, there is damn little room to stake out a claim and relax. But I am the Birdwell, and I observe.
Under the ‘Red’ tents, you could get into line and obtain a pallet of chowder shots within a minute or two, easily making your way back to your group while they were still hot and your mug of beer still cold. Social graces survive intact and observed, (for the most part) under the Red tent. There is room to move around, even linger while you decide which of the vendors to patronize.
Not so across the field. Under the ‘White’ tents people are crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, belly to back. There is very little banter, light-heartedness or any vestiges of courtesy. No one is ‘easy-going’ or ‘laid-back’. You can’t see the ground. It’s a little hard to breathe.
You press forward, not asking, nor giving any quarter. You look straight ahead, but threat-scan 270 degrees. Is that woman trying to cut in? Is that old codger doing the slow side step? What the hell is taking so long? How many cups are you going to take, grandma? Hey, eat your chowdah somewhere else, will ya’?
Getting back out to your group is a dicey proposition, what with your bounty secured. You need to take care of your prize, not that anyone is going to take it from you, but you don’t want to spill any of it. Especially on any children or anyone’s bare skin. It’s hot, ya’ know? And messy. That’s why you didn’t wear your good LL Bean fleece or deck shoes. You also want to make headway so you can reach your group while the chowder is still reasonably warm. Cold chowder sucks.
Spilled chowder? Once again, white comes out on top. White chowder tends to stay on top of your clothing where it will dry in short order and can be scraped off. Red soaks through to your undergarments and leaves you with an unpleasant smell until your next shower.
For the most part, people let exiting chowdaheads out much more easily than incoming. Outgoing chowdaheads are not a threat to anyone’s position in line. Indeed, they make room at the front of the line.
I have one of two ways to navigate the sea of humanity. Either I follow someone who is making headway through the crowd, or I hold my pallet of chowder shots high above the crowd and make my way towards daylight with determinate look in mine eyes. Nobody wants to get between a man (or woman) and his (or her) chowdah.
Chowdahead comin’ through, you chowdaheads.
Overindulgence? Funny you should mention that…
…Well, maybe I’ll just leave that there, along with this:
Clams spelled backwards is smalC.