Two Tuckernuck Chowder Battles have come and gone since I last wrote on the subject of how I walk the Earth like the last king of a dying race, no crown upon my head, a chef’s knife and a ladle clutched in either hand the only signifiers of my displaced suzerain as I stumble unbent through a world lacking culinary enlightenment. It must be noted that in this case, of course, the “dying race” is comprised of those individuals blessed by a preternatural grace who know what an award winning chowder should taste like, namely mine. Two more times the planet has made its circuit through the dark, cold void of space during which time my soul has felt a numbing desolation similar to the one found in that vast Stygian vacuum, as if my spirit in reaching to touch the eternal face of Jehovah, lord of the bivalve, had instead brushed against the blank visage of the unnameable one from beyond the curve of space and returned a gnarled, blackened vestige of itself; incapable of hope, devoid of joy, like an infinite culinary Mudville. Despite the heaviness of my heart I will attempt to now give a full and 100% fact checked, peer reviewed account of just what transpired in these last two epic battles upon the strand.
Barely do I now even remember the summer of 2013. I do know it had started with tremendous promise. My raw bar and clambake business had been reinvigorated by the addition of Joe Wyatt, a Wisconsin-bred musician and chef, who had come to Nantucket from his base in Boston for the summer and had fit right in with the scene, from the first earning plaudits for his good food and sweet singing. July began with a tremendous clambake weekend highlighted by the marriage proposal of Bill Brown to Patricia Sheehan Ph.D, GYN, as she emerged from swimming the jelly mile. The remainder of the month now seems a blur of beach parties, fry ups, hootenannies and raw bar events. It was a time of business and pleasure, the quotidian days slipping away hardly noted while the long awaited, highly auspicious date of August 17th fast approached. This was the day scheduled for the 4th Tuckernuck Chowder Battle, my redemption.
There are many who commonly refer to the Tuckernuck Chowder Battle as “the chowder fest” or “the chowder-off” or “the contest Brian won’t stop fucking whining about losing every year”. Well, it is none of these things (even if the whining characterization does have a grain of truth, what is the problem with standing up for one’s self when one is continually wronged?); it is a battle. Because I ask you, what kind of self-respecting king wants to be crowned at a festival or worse a fair? The answer, King Richard, speaks for itself. Furthermore there are no suburban moms dressed as harlots or systems analyst larpers (Google it if you don’t know what I am talking about) playing out revenge fantasies on their bosses with sticks in the lagoon on Tuckernuck when we convene. No, we are bivalve warriors and we have not come out to play-ee-yay.
The 2013 line-up was tight and tough. No dead weight, dilettantes or first time cooks, only grizzled veterans all seeking one prize, the Chowder Cup. When reigning King, Dane DeCarlo, unveiled the trophy there was universal acclaim for the alterations he had made. Following the lead of previous king Randy Hudson’s fine metal work additions, he had removed the original white plastic bowl and replaced it with a large abalone shell, its iridescent interior beckoning with siren song to all those who sought to be king. In addition to DeCarlo, the previous year’s fluke winner and Hudson, who’s reign was tainted by rumors of a boozy quid pro quo; the other competitors were island newcomer and kitchen pro Joe Wyatt; Clambake veteran and reputed one-man party Arty; highly trained private chef Greg Margolis; wildcard local farmer and Tuckernuck mainstay Sam Slosek; my wife (the original chowder king) Dani Coleman, who only the type of fool who cares not for delicious food or good lovin’ would dare cast aspersions at; and of course the people’s choice and Vegas’ odds on favorite to win, me.
Good friends Andy and Cory Warden were visiting from Colorado with their son Theo and we all had the good fortune to be spending the week after the battle at Sam and Rachel’s ultra luxe Tuckernuck “camp”. Handling all the logistics involved in simultaneously mounting a Chowder Battle and preparing to spend the week on Tuckernuck is a monumental task best not left until the day of the Battle so Andy and I had ferried the bulk of the needed supplies for both over to the island the day before, thus, the morning of the battle I was there in the lagoon early and well prepared. Unfortunately many others were not such paragons of military precision as I myself was. Excuses for delay included such trivialities as hangovers, businesses and even children, who apparently need more regularly scheduled meals and rest today than when I was a boy, all relayed by the malingerer’s favorite method of communication, the text message. Eventually, all the competitors, finished with whatever poorly prioritized tasks had needed their attention arrived, only to find to their great dismay, that the quahog fairies had not visited the beach overnight. Clams being an important, some may say critical, ingredient in clam chowder, a reasonable person might have expected that these contestants would be unable to compete but nooo. We live in a soft age of “going with the flow”, “no worries” and “it’s all good” or so I’ve heard on Glen Beck’s radio show, and so, unsurprisingly, the start time was delayed so the unprepared “takers” as I will call them could rally all available hands to gather the clams which they themselves should have already obtained. Once this exercise in socialist, nanny state Obamanomics was finished we were finally ready to begin. There was one thing however, which caught in my Objectivist craw; while certain “makers” who had with diligence previously acquired an adequate quantity of mollusks for their own chowders unselfishly went back to the clam beds, a certain chef used the time to begin reducing a large amount of heavy cream gaining an edge which later may have proved critical.
Finally, cooking, our shared and avowed purpose on this spit of sand, began. I removed myself from contention early due to my all too intense focus on shit-talking which lead to a catastrophic lack of attention to my bacon. Which is to say I burned it. Blackened. Cue the “you’re screwed” theme from a Warner Brothers cartoon. As I have stated with tremendous eloquence in the past, the foundation of a great chowder is the bacon, thus I was fucked and this time by myself. Students of the classics probably would say something like, “situation normal” but you know, smarter. Oh hubris! Tragic flaw of heroes and kings! Never again I vowed, would I turn my gaze from exalted immortality to throw shade at my fellow cook. Not at least until next year.
Soon the cooking was finished and the time for judging was upon us. Our ad hoc event staff (big ups to Katie Davis et al.) organized bowls, ladles and cups and were in no time doling out a taste from each of the steaming submissions to all comers on the beach. Most of the cooks gathered off to the side keeping a respectful distance from the tasting area and sprawled in the sand exchanging war stories, pouring well-deserved libation and enjoying the camaraderie of their fellow contestants. All but with one notable exception who appeared to be making unseemly attempts at lobbying the adult tasters, messing with chowder service and (although no evidence of it was uncovered) possibly, maybe adding gummy bears to the cups of the more youthful members of the judging community. Finally, the tasting complete, the judges stacked their cups before the bowls of chowder, indicating their preference by the cup’s placement and we had a winner.
Another new tradition was born this particular year with the creation of a second place prize. My ever crafty wife and a number of the kids took a t-shirt left over from that year’s Ozone Surf Classic and gave it a full 1980’s make over. If Jennifer Beals and Pat Benatar had a three-way with David Lee Roth and then let Jimmy Buffet adopt the resultant lovechild and raise it, this shirt would be the one that child would wear while rollerblading. DayGlo green, with the sleeves and collar removed, the midriff section slashed into strips each with a shell or chunk of beach debris tied to the bottom-no set of steak knives was this second prize. Naturally second place turned out to be a tie between the reigning King Dane and newcomer Joe. Photo opportunities abounded as the shirt was modeled in a manner that would have done GQ or Tiger Beat equal disservice. A pact was made to split custody of this amazing garment six months each with Dane taking possession first.
The winner, as you may have surmised by my grousing, was Greg Margolis. By his own admission deeply disappointed by his submission the previous year he had rebounded and taken the most sought after prize in Tuckernuck beach cooking. His cloyingly sweet, super cream had overwhelmed the normally discerning taste buds of the electorate and well, there was that kid’s vote too. He raised the cup proudly and vowed to honor it and improve it for the following year’s battle.
It is the curse of aging that time seems to accelerate as it passes. That is to say each year appears shorter to the individual experiencing it than the one previous. More likely it is a function of the fact that when your are 5, one year is 20% of your life as opposed to being 40 something years old when it represents a mere 2%. Many times have I feebly waved my fist at this inexorable phenomenon, my shoulders hunched in pathetic ennui when I torment myself by considering the terrible fact of mortality but then I stop and give myself a firm slap, thinking, “well, at least the next Chowder Battle will come soon”. Unlike the Jamaican version of “manana”, “soon come” it did.
Last summer made 2013 seem like one long holiday. Yoho business increased dramatically in 2014 with both raw bars and clambakes filling the calendar to bursting and occasionally threatening to squeeze out the sweet tranquil times when friends and family gather on the beach. Yet still there was a great Clambake, replete with boats both sunk and stranded, great friends from all points of the compass, the new Brown baby for all to dote upon, and our amazing fellowship with food and music to tie it all together. Time again became a blur for the next month until, like the year before, the day came to decamp for a stay on Tuckernuck, kicked off again by the Chowder Battle.
2014 featured the most cooks ever at the Battle. A great combination of regulars and newcomers all seeking to wear the crown. My crown! This year I would wear it physically and not just in my fevered imaginings. Who could possibly beat a chowder based on the best bacon I’d ever made. Bacon home cured and smoked by me. I had made dozens of chowders for clients and all summer the reviews were the same, “BEST CHOWDER EVER”. How could I lose?
Well, for one thing there were some serious contestants. Greg the reigning king was back with his deep bag of tricks, which had caused the rules committee to split the kid’s vote from the adult’s to prevent any gummy related hi-jinks. The other previous kings Dani, Randy and Dane were all in attendance and despite my all my blathering there’s not a slouch among them. Joe, my right-hand man and wintertime fine dining sous chef, no less, was there ready to use all the secrets he had gleaned from two years of observing me, the master, at work. My children Oona and-more worrisome-Miles (himself now the sous chef at a boutique hotel in Boston), both first-timers were entered as a team. Then there were the wildcards, a polyglot squad consisting of an American from Rhode Island, a German and a Serb; all cooks by trade and all bound by common purpose, claiming they would produce the ocean state’s signature chowder. At the time nobody had any idea what that meant. So we all just gave them that nodding grin and thumbs up you use on people who are mentally ill or want to talk about Duck Dynasty to let them know you really sincerely are with them, while surreptitiously sidestepping away.
In a repeat of the previous year’s battles many contestants were late, unprepared, or under-equipped and though these folks were given the aid they needed (ingredients, cookware etc.) there was some grumbling from a certain crown-less caterer who was later seen conspicuously thumbing through a dog eared copy of Atlas Shrugged and later heard loudly quoting from John Galt’s climactic radio address. Spirits were high though, tables and burners were set in place and cooking commenced. King Greg unveiled a secret weapon, a whole smoked Virginia ham from which he began rendering fat and feeding potential voters. Randy beset with burner problems, recovered nicely and got his mostly home grown ingredients cooking. Joe quickly ran into seasoning problems which he was still attempting unsuccessfully to mitigate at the end. The Rhode Island chowder soon became the focal point of the day’s shit-talking as it became apparent that this was not in fact a real chowder but was instead some kind of clear Portagee clam and linguica soup with kale or some other green shit floating around in it.
20 minutes in to the competition my chowder was done.
Serve it up!
Unfortunately no other chowder was even close to being finished and so while my chowder languished; potatoes getting too soft, clams turning rubbery, my fellow contestants plodded on; their feeble hands working as fast as their dim minds (or was it dim hands and feeble minds?) could command. By the time all the other cooks had finished nearly two hours had elapsed and I was forced to reheat. The result was heartbreaking, a perfect chowder now made second rate, but I am a total pro, willing, on any day to match my grade B against what all others call their best and only to kvetch about it for a short time.
The voting process took quite some time. Serious deliberation was required for all in attendance agreed that this was the best collection of chowders ever produced at the battle, and who wants to rush through that? Earnest discussions breaking down flavor profiles, mouth feel and other such Food Network catchphrases fortunately were not a part of this process. Even the Rhode Island entry, despite being a soup and not a real chowder, earned grudging but well-deserved praise.
And then, awards time.
Greg had carried on the tradition of each King making an alteration to the Cup by replacing the antler legs with real, bedazzled trophy posts worthy of a Little Miss Sunshine pageant. All the kids on the beach had taken it on themselves to create a prize for the winner of the kid’s choice vote, a well-crafted crown of twigs, seagulls bones, feather, shells and other available flotsam and jetsam. Greg won the kid’s vote going away and claimed their sweet crown. The adult vote was a nail biter but in the end Greg won that as well, defeating your faithful correspondent by a single vote. Raising his hard earned trophy to the sky, the first Chowder King in the short storied history of the competition to repeat. He turned his head up to face the heavens; the golden, near liquid rays of the mid-afternoon August sun flowing over his bearded chin like a chowder tsunami, opened his mouth and let loose a whoop of joy.
I took home my set of steak knives already scheming as to how I might better synchronize finishing my chowder with my less-efficient adversaries next year.
Then it was time to sing. Instruments were produced, drinks poured, many from the floating satellite of the Chicken Box known as Stella B and we sang the songs we loved that summer accompanied on guitar, mandolin and ukulele, by the cohort of fine musicians in attendance and for some reason, from Smashing Pumpkins to Lorde, every song was about Hodor. We sang and drank, laughing until we were crying and we ate more chowder; mixing all of them together in one bowl of awesome, and the sun got low and dusk came and still we sang, nobody wanting to be the first to leave that beach.