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Chowder Chefs Stewing About the Best Broth

Fans of the tomato type will face off with connoisseurs of the cream version at the annual Maritime Days cook-off.


To chowder aficionados, the debate has simmered for a hundred years: White? Or red?

It's not a question of the proper wine, but the proper broth. Creamy versus tomato. In fact, the debate boiled over in Maine in 1939 when a legislator introduced a bill banning tomatoes from the traditional New England stew.

You can make up your own mind on this delicate issue Saturday when chowder chefs--amateur and professional--compete for top honors in the eighth annual Maritime Days Chowder Cook-Off at the Channel Islands Harbor.

Beginning at 10 a.m., they will be dicing potatoes, shucking clams, and simmering broth in huge pots on Coleman stoves set up outside the Whale's Tail restaurant, sponsor of the event. Meanwhile, the Oxnard High School Band and the Santa Rosette Cloggers will provide the entertainment.

The judges start sampling the chowders at 11:45 a.m., but it's not only the taste that they consider. Showmanship counts here. Last year's winner in the amateur division was a team called the Toxic Chowder Heads, who donned white jumpsuits and respirators. They tended a vat nearby filled with green-dyed dry ice that sent plumes of smoke skyward. Another winner made elaborate fruit carvings while the chowder cooked.

The judges should wrap up their deliberations by 12:30 p.m. Then chowder fans can sample the concoctions of the dozen or more contestants expected and vote for their favorites in the "people's choice" competition.

"They're usually waiting in line by then," said Sally Brownlow, chairwoman of the cook-off, which draws several hundred people each year.

Technically, the chowders need not include clams or even fish. Vegetable chowder is OK, and the field includes both creamy and tomato-based versions, although chowder connoisseurs are known to argue passionately for one or the other.

Chuck Formicola of Newbury Park, an amateur competing Saturday, swears by the tomato version, better known as Manhattan chowder.

"The tastes come out more when you use tomato," he contends. "Cream hides the spices."

Formicola, who has cruised the Caribbean, cooks under the title "Chuck's Caribbean Clam Chowder." He and his girlfriend will be decked out in floral shirts at a table with Caribbean touches--shells, beach blankets and music.

A veteran of chili cook-offs, he uses only fresh ingredients, including the clams.

"You'll see me shucking clams there," he said.

Chowder sounds American, and most people think it is. But the name actually comes from a French word chaudiere, for caldron. Hundreds of years ago, residents along the coast of Brittany would prepare caldrons of fish stew when the fishermen brought in their catch.

How it came to America is only a hunch, according to chowder historians. It might have arrived in New England via Newfoundland. Since corn was an early staple in the colonies, it, along with local seafood, became part of the chowder tradition.

Those early American recipes sound peculiar today. They included salt pork and soda crackers for thickening. Potatoes came later. Spices were simple--salt and pepper.

When and where the first tomato-based chowder popped up is still something of a mystery. As one story goes, it was the creation of two brothers who started the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan in the late 1800s. Because milk was too expensive, they substituted tomatoes and labeled the stew Manhattan clam chowder, according to a New York Times story.

The red stuff got little respect from New Englanders. But that has changed. Now it's viewed as healthier than the creamy versions.

Gerry Ferraro-Moreno, owner of Oxnard's La Dolce Vita restaurant, took home a prize at last year's chowder cook-off for her Manhattan chowder.

"It's extremely low-fat," she said. She uses a little olive oil, along with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, celery, white wine, potato, clams and spices. Her customers prefer it to the high-calorie creamy chowder, she said.

But these days, anything goes. Toxic Chowder Heads' Mark Surgett uses a cream-based recipe with salmon, cherrystone clams, crab legs, oysters, leeks, carrots, onions and spices.

"Restaurant chowder tastes like restaurant chowder," he said. "Ours is more unique." And expensive--about $120 for two gallons, said Surgett, a chemist whose company deals with hazardous waste.

Perhaps it's not as unique as another contestant's creation last year. Artist Michael Racine used hot Italian sausage and half-and-half for his rich, artery-clogging chowder, appropriately called "Code Blue."


* WHAT: Maritime Days Chowder Cook-Off.

* WHERE: Channel Islands Harbor, Oxnard. (Next to the Whale's Tail, 3950 Bluefin Circle.)

* WHEN: Cooking begins Saturday at 10 a.m., with sampling at 12:30 p.m. until supplies run out.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: 985-4852 (chowder cook-off entries will be accepted through Friday; $15 entry fee).

* FYI: Other Maritime Days events Saturday include the boaters' swap meet, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; children's fishing derby, 9 a.m.-noon; bazaar, 8 a.m.-noon; and American Heart Walk, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

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