The Beachcomber Fall Festival Guide

The Essence of Chowder

Sep 22, 2017

All the definitions of clam chowder are loaded with simile: A chowder is like a soup; a chowder is akin to a stew. But the immutable truth is that the proper mix of clams, cream, potatoes and onion is like nothing else. Full stop.

It’s little wonder that this delectable potage is celebrated annually on Long Beach Island under the aegis of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.

Todd Elsasser’s late father-in-law, Frank Panzone, “created this monster,” as he said in complimentary jest, 28 years ago to extend the summer season. Now it’s so big that the planning for next year’s festival is already underway, according to Elsasser, who is in his first year as Chowderfest coordinator. The festival raises considerable funds to support local charities.

The festival honors chowder in the white and red categories with the recent addition of a new category, the Creative chowder. The offerings in this category are lobster bisques, corn chowders and seafood chowders.

All these soups are the descendants of the original chowder first introduced in 18th-century New England.

“Not many people on the Island use pork,” asserted Elsasser; but the use of salt pork is a common flavor base for soups, stews and beans in New England.

Salt pork adds distinctive flavor as well as interesting texture counterpoints for the sweet, tender clams used in the soup. Today, bacon is most commonly substituted for salt pork. While bacon makes everything better, salt pork adds an incomparable je ne sais quois to any dish, but specially to clam chowder.

Often people wonder at the origin of dishes we savor today; what did cause someone to think that boiling water and butter would make the decidedly unattractive lobster a thing of beauty? But it’s not difficult to imagine the alchemy attendant in creating the chowder we revere.

And like most things American, it has flavor and technique roots from around the world that have morphed into something unique in the culinary world.

People in the know understand that clam chowder has distinct versions: from New England, New Jersey, Delaware, Hatteras, Minorcan – the chowder served in the panhandle of Florida –  and Manhattan.

Chowder is an intensely personal thing. Chefs are steadfast in their loyalty to the species of clam they use and the broth in which the clams are suspended. Many assume that nothing will do but the quahog while just as many can’t imagine anything but the sweet and tender littleneck.

To garnish with whole clams or not is deliberated with the intensity of the Lincoln-Douglass debate, when the truth is that chowder may be the only dish in which garnish is truly superfluous.

So passionate are some that in the 1930s, legislators in Maine debated whether to formally define clam chowder and prohibit the Manhattan designation. In the 21st century, such fanaticism is tempered; today the winner of the Chowderfest enjoys bragging rights, a plaque and years’ worth of chest thumping.

Stefano’s Seafood and Pasta in North Beach Haven consistently wins competitions in New England and is a formidable contender here on Long Beach Island. Last year, La Bamba took honors as Rookie of the Year for its seafood chowder, which Elsasser described as “fantastic.”

The annual competition raises the bar for every participant. The participating restaurants, from the Island or from the nearby mainland, ensure that, as Elsasser said, “Southern Ocean County has the best chowder, period.”

— Dora Dunn


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