The Chowder King

My name is Brian Cullen and I, like many Rastafarians and that weird Hasidic kid Matisayahu, am a king without a crown. Over what realm does my suzerain extend? Simply put the boundaries of my realm contain all that is known to man as chowder. Full disclosure: the foundation of everything I know about making chowder I appropriated from my wife. That’s not to say that she invented chowder or that she didn’t just learn it from her Grandmother, because she didn’t and she did respectively; it’s just that as I begin this story I feel that credit should be given to those who came before me and created the basis of something that I have now perfected and taken to a level of Zen equal to that of the Buddha or even the Dude. And just as Phillip of Macedon paved the way for Alexander the Great so have others blazed a trail for me in the making of this sublime creamy soup.

So that there is clarity from the outset, when I refer to chowder I am only talking about a soup of clam, potato and cream made, preferably, on a beach. If, when I say chowder, you say “Manhattan” stop reading this and seek immediate psychiatric care because you are fucking delusional. If the word chowder for you first brings to mind any soup containing fish or corn or “something to thicken it a little bit” or mushrooms (I know, right? But I’ve seen it) or a shellfish other than the littleneck clam commonly know as the quahog then I pity you much in the way that Mr T would. Apart from the aforementioned ingredients the only other acceptable elements of chowder are onions, bacon and herbs.

A Bloody Mary is vodka and tomato juice with horseradish, black pepper, Tabasco and a garnish. You may change the garnish or the seasoning as you might use salt pork in place of bacon or use different amount and types of herbs but if you were to, for example, use Clamato, well then that’s a Clamdigger and not a Bloody isn’t it? It is important in these uncertain times of Korean BBQ tacos and Appletinis to sometimes be rigid and unyielding in these definitions because to do otherwise is how we get someone like Rihanna being called an R+B singer, which she clearly is not.

This is about simplicity and purity, and why my chowder is the best in the world. It is not a call to jihad. I do not wish for those who think differently than me to be laid to waste as if by a horde of my fanatical adherents storming their citadels and sowing their fields with salt. In some things there is room for disagreement, for example, who was more influential Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, hmm, but if your position is simply that Charlie Parker sucks ass, then to paraphrase my mother-in-law your opinion is meaningless and without basis and you should probably shut the fuck up about music in general and jazz in particular. For the greatness of Charlie Parker exists independent of opinion, it just simply is. In the same vein, everything that I have said about chowder up until now and until I am done talking about it is 100% irrefutable gospel truth.

Where did chowder come from? From what culinary tributaries did this bivalve ambrosia emerge? Did it spring fully formed like Athena from a migraine plagued Olympian of a chef? Or was it in forged in a crucible during the melding of New World and Old when Europeans brought their cream and bacon to the Native people’s land of tubers and shellfish? These are excellent questions, none of which will I be answering accurately because honestly it doesn’t really matter. What is important to know is that for some time there has been something called chowder (defined above) and that I make it better than anyone else ever has before me and probably ever will in the future when I make it no more. If you need a lengthy, well researched digression about the origins of chowder or any of the other fanciful points just listed I would urge you to get a subscription to the New Yorker and wait patiently, it’ll happen.

True chowder for me began around the same time that I fell in love with my wife. A coincidence? I think not. In those days of our early and quite genteel courtship my wife lived on Nantucket and I, the young suitor, would make properly chaperoned visits to her family’s ancestral manor. During one such visit she revealed that she had obtained the use of a friend’s 4-wheel drive vehicle which would afford us the opportunity for a gay beach excursion. As we drove the frozen sands of Smith Point on the far west end of Madaket she drew us to a halt observing that a recent storm hand caused numerous large quahogs to have been thrown upon the shore where they had since frozen to death. We leaped from the car and gathered up the bounty which providence had bestowed upon us. Later after warming at the hearth she prepared for me a soup, which she called chowder, but was like no “chowder” I’d ever tasted. This was not the thick gloppy sludge of Legal Seafoods punctuated like a grade school essay by a smattering of too-soft pellets of potato and virtually indiscernible amounts of pureed clam, no, this was a creamy, salty flavor bomb, loaded with cubed new potatoes, thick with soft chunks of clam, all counterbalanced by bit of smoky bacon and minced aromatic herbs. This she revealed to me was a recipe that had come to her from her grandmother, the formidable Marjorie Schwartz.

Years went by, and as with many journeys, my ascent to the rarefied heights I now inhabit began slowly, building an inexorable momentum toward the one signal moment when it became obvious that everything, forever had changed or had at least forever changed in the world of chowders. Again Dani, who was by then my wife, played a key role. One day while our children were at summer camp we decided to kill the few hours we had before camp pick up time at the West Ender restaurant eating fried food and drinking Madaket Mystery’s (a 5 liquor rum concoction for which the serving limit is 2). After all what kind of parent picks up their over-stimulated brood from day camp without getting a good buzz on first?  Keeping themselves on an even keel while pretending to be keenly fascinated by whatever gimp lanyards or seashell and glue multi-media collages they had made that day. Leaving Madaket, Dani called out to pull over and there on the side of the road was a 1963 14′ Glastron lake boat with a curved windscreen like the Batboat and the original 90hp Evinrude outboard still on the back, for sale, for $1000. Fortunately for us and for chowder lovers everywhere, rum prevailed over commonsense that day and we bought the boat which in time became known as the Mustard Pinto.

Urged on by our pal Spongey, we began frequenting Tuckernuck, the small island off the west end of Nantucket and there discovered the rich clam beds near to shore. Over time we began to stay over in rental houses and befriend the unofficial mayors of Tuckernuck, the Souza brothers, Mark and Pete. We would picnic on the beach most Sundays and at some point got the idea that it might be fun to bring out our turkey fryer and fry a turkey on the beach. From there it wasn’t long until I realized that the propane burner could be used to cook anything on the beach and the first beach chowders began to happen.

Things moved fast after that. The Souzas got me some work on Tuckernuck and I took to making chowders to feed the crew after a long day’s work. Chowder became a Saturday night staple at our annual clambake weekend. Astonished individuals tasting their first cups soon were proclaiming my chowder the best they’d ever tasted, before hurrying to the pot in hope that a second cup might still be available. Thus I felt emboldened to do something I had never before considered, I challenged my wife to a cooking competition, specifically, a chowder contest on the beach. The rules would be simple, all preparation and cooking must be performed on the beach and the judging would be done by whatever friends and passersby were on Tuckernuck that day.

I felt quite confident that day that victory would be mine. I’d been making a good deal of chowder the last few years, mostly on the beach, which she had never done before. This would probably be the best time to give some instruction on how I went about making the best chowder in the world that day, reserving liquids, size of dice, sauteeing this and mincing that but it would just be depressing because unfortunately, that day, the best chowder did not win. Due to some nefarious shenanigans involving a change in the number assigned to each batch, voters became confused and voted for the lesser chowder. Certain female friends and perhaps even their chosen chowder goddess are rumored to have engaged in a campaign of deliberate misinformation. I know it. I just can’t prove it. As a result my wife was named the first chowder king of Tuckernuck island. Some crowns however do not fit well nor do they well match the head upon which they rest and like in the case of Richard III there was a group of true chowder aficionados who felt that a grave wrong had been perpetrated. I counseled patience to these partisans for would not the Earth circuit the sun and present in one short year a chance for redemption? Yes, because of science we knew that it would.

Oh what bitter fruit a tree so well cared for may still yield. One year later I had reached an even higher level of skill in producing a mouth shockingly sensational beach chowder. Time and again throughout the summer minds had been blown and man-crushes triggered by a series of chowders made in the weeks leading up to the late August date of the competition. I even had a secret weapon, my home cured, smoked bacon made from the belly of pigs fed a diet of apples, acorn and spent whey from organic cheese production. Smoked by apple twigs snipped into perfect small chunks by a master woodcarver in Rhode Island this bacon was godhead. A bacon so good that vegetarians have been known to break down sobbing and renounce their foolish lifestyle choice just from catching a whiff of the aroma. This time there would be other competitors; Sam, a local farmer known for his tasty corn; Greg, former chef-manager at Topper’s Wauwinet; Randy, a tarheel punk hippie who had made some waves with his home brewed beer; Mrs Brown, elderly matriarch of an extended Tuckernuck clan and of course Dani, who  was the only one of them who I considered an actual worthy adversary.

Many more spectators watched as each contestant worked feverishly to make the best pot they possibly could. Studying each of my foes I soon noted the fatal weakness of each. Sam was clearly half in the bag to start and seemed to think that by adding his tasty corn he might make up for his lack of skill. Greg was throwing in everything, the kitchen sink and mushrooms which, I’m sorry, is an abomination. Randy was a victim of the common hippie misconception that some heirloom food, in this case purple potatoes, will save their otherwise crappy meal. Mrs Brown”s was too thick, too old and she used salt pork. Which just left Dani who would be making the recipe same as me but with worse bacon and less on the beach experience.

Sam had generously spent the time to produce a fine trophy and I waited patiently for the voting to finish so that I might be the first to raise it aloft in victory. This was not, however, to be. Due to a clear Tuckernuck family sympathy vote for Mrs Brown and Dani peeling some votes away some votes from people who clearly don’t know shit about bacon, Randy was able to slither away with the crown that day. Later there were numerous unverifiable reports of certain Cisco beer tabs being waived but whether or not this was quid pro quo remains shrouded in mystery. So for a second year I left the lagoon with a heavy heart and a bitter taste in my mouth. In the Chan Park Wook film adaptation of these events this day becomes the spark to ignite a lengthy cycle of violent revenge, but I don’t take out my blind rage on fellow contestants, who are the beneficiaries of the judging whims of a mass of tasteless hoi-polloi, who wouldn’t know caviar from bluefish eggs, I would have my payback in a year mano a mano.

Randy enjoyed his year to the fullest. Me? I now have a catering business and spent the summer shucking thousands of clams and oysters at various events and a certain beer garden honing my already devastating knife skills. In addition I catered 10-15 beach clambakes, at each one making a chowder and by early July could no longer count how many times I’d been told, “this is the best chowder I have ever eaten”. To show that I was a good sport I even made a chowder at the Cisco Brewers beer garden one day and advertised it as “non-award winning” chowder. Randy augmented Sam’s already fine work with some nifty metal craft, making the trophy even better than before and soon enough the big day came.

That day on Tuckernuck the lagoon was like the infield at the Indy 500. The level of interest exceeded that of the World Cup. It was game on! Tents were set up. Top shelf musicians jammed in a day long hootenanny. In addition to Dani, Randy and I the field consisted of: Dane , a washed up Italo-American guitarist best known for his eggplant, John, an affable barman and nightclub owner who’d never made a chowder and possibly any other dish before, and Jonny Hoota, well intentioned but drug addled scion of an old Provincetown restaurant and fish mongering dynasty.

This seemed an even easier path to victory than the previous year. Hoota was using a recipe from retired food icon Chris Schlesinger and he promptly burned the shit out of it, Dane appeared to be making a sweet corn pone, meanwhile Jordin seemed pre-occupied with providing everyone on the beach with a nice rum drink and Randy quickly became mired in his strange world of OCD artisanry. The music roared, people sang and drank, and when the last vote was cast the trophy was inexplicably awarded to Dane. Even hearing the message on Hoota’s phone from an irate Schlesinger, berating him for ruining his “award winning” recipe and launching threats as to what would happen if he were to reveal its source, did not lift my spirits.

Later studies of voting patterns have indicated that many voters may not have understood they should have left their cups in front of the chowder bowl which they most preferred and instead just deposited it in front the last bowl which just happened to be Dane’s. Further evidence that a more elite judging panel may be needed was confirmed by John’s second place finish. And so again I have gone through another year, a king without a crown, tormented by the deep void left by my loss. Hope springs eternal though and soon another season will start, a season which will see me shuck more clams, make more chowders, blow more minds and on August 17th get more votes than any other Yoho alive.

2013 Chowder Competion on Tuckernuck. And no, I am still not King.

2013 Chowder Competion on Tuckernuck. And no, I am still not King.