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The Chowder Challenge

October 12, 2018

Really, it’s amazing I’m not 300 pounds. Because the day after taking down twenty-three wings, I judged twenty-three different chowders. There’s nothing quite like a few pints of cream and butter to kick your heart into gear.

At least this year I had the presence of mind to pick up a six pack of beer for the judges to sip on in between the samples. I mean, everyone else who was participating in Troy’s ChowderFest was drinking. Why should the judges be any different?

Thankfully, the Shmaltz bottle shop is right on the square so I was able to get some Slingshot lager. I’m not quite sure why this Jewish beer pairs so well with traif. But that’s the way it goes.

Did you happen to see the results of the judging? They may seem strange. But even though I was just one judge on a panel of five, I think I should be able to help make sense of it all. And maybe provide a bit more context too. Because sometimes there are stories that get lost in all the numbers.

As a judge, you have to stick to the rules of the competition. In the case of Troy ChowderFest, all the chowders were divided into a few categories: Seafood, Original, Vegetarian and Vegan. Within those, we were only assigning two scores. One was for taste. The other was for originality.

In some competitions, the judges are given a chance to discuss their scores, and potentially adjust a number here or there so that the results end up matching the consensus of the panel. This did not happen at ChowderFest. My hunch is that the winner from each category was determined by simply adding all the scores together, and not by some weighted average. Which would mean originality of the recipe and its taste share equal footing in the end result.

So how did the vegan chicken autumn harvest chowder from The Shop take the top prize?

Given how the scores are tabulated, it makes perfect sense. It was both delicious and remarkably original. Notably, this chowder achieved its creaminess through the use of hazelnuts and cashews. And both the flavor and texture were deep and satisfying. It was without a doubt the standout sample we were served.

The Ruck’s sweet potato, apple and chipotle chowder was also super delicious and well balanced. The knife work on the fruit and vegetables was tight. Plus, the flavors were really well balanced. There was a sweetness to it, but the natural sugar of the sweet potato and apple worked well to counter the smoldering heat of the chipotle. The chowder was not just sweet for sweetness’ sake.

What’s missing in the top three are all the excellent seafood chowders. The problem is that ultimately they aren’t all that original. That said, I was personally delighted by Plumb’s oyster chowder. By the time it got to the judges, the thick and creamy chowder base had started to get clumpy. But I would have loved a hot cup of that stuff. The oysters were tender and delicate. And with such a rich and creamy base, it was truly a decadent treat.

But Bountiful Bread ended up winning the seafood category with its smoky seafood chowder. In part because it was original, and in part because it tasted great. Smoking the seafood is a clever way of keeping the seafood content high without having to rely on the use of bacon. Smoked fish is like the seafood version of bacon. And it’s just great. Especially in chowder.

If push came to shove, I’d rather have another cup of the oyster chowder than the smoky seafood one, but on paper the smoke wins.

Any sample that doesn’t fit within the seafood, vegetarian, or vegan categories is considered to be original. Even if the chowder isn’t particularly original anymore. So buffalo chicken chowder and reuben chowder both fall under the original category.

Let’s talk buffalo chicken chowder for a sec.

Here’s the thing. I love buffalo chicken everything. And this year there were two different places going toe to toe in the buffalo chicken chowder fight. The funny thing is I liked them both for different reasons. I loved the assertive Frank’s Red Hot base from Bootleggers. But those blue cheese oyster crackers from McGreivey’s were fantastic. In my dreams I would put those two together, and have the best buffalo chicken chowder of them all.

So the winner of this category went to Brown’s for the reuben chowder. Have you ever tried reuben chowder before? I have. It’s usually disgusting. This one was not. Somehow, the sauerkraut flavors had been tamed. And the rye bread, cheese, and russian dressing were treated as a crouton on the side. It was a fiendishly clever way of managing what is often a salty and muddled mess.

The moral of this story is that it’s still hard for an excellent seafood chowder to stand out in the competition. Thus the lack of love for The Shop’s delightful seafood chowder and that seriously well done oyster chowder from Plumb.

Now you know. And perhaps now you have a hint of why I went scurrying off to SM&Co for a little relief.

Speaking of which, there is no rest for the wicked. Saturday is the Pitney Meadows Community Farm Fire Feast for kids! I’m bringing Little Miss Fussy. Who else is going? The menu has just been posted, and holy cow it looks good. If you go with your kid, that will set you back $50 for the four hour event. That’s $12 an hour. You can’t even get a babysitter for that. And the money helps go to support this valuable community resource.

The menu has been posted, and they will have hamburgers and hot dogs for the kids. But they also have roasted cauliflower with caramelized onion sauce, shaved carrot salad with charred scallion vinaigrette, accompanied by whipped ricotta, and crumble of both potatoes and sweet potatoes. Plus there’s a smoked beef brisket, and much more. All of the food is cooked over live fire in four pits around the farm. And on top of it all, there’s a long list of fun things for kids to do and see. It sounds amazing.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryan H permalink
    October 12, 2018 5:19 pm

    That’s funny. I wasn’t even thinking about how the “original” score was going to factor in, outside of the Original category. I think that vegan chowder was going to win regardless, but if originality wasn’t factored into the overall scoring, a seafood chowder probably would’ve crept into the top three. I know I had seafood chowders rated higher than the #2 and #3 in taste, but not in originality.

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