Dispatch from the Chowder Battlefield
Jimmy's #43, the local temple of locavorism, hosted a "chowder slam" Saturday afternoon to benefit the New Amsterdam Market. For $20, you could wend your way through the mazelike underground restaurant to eat your fill -- in tiny gulps -- of 14 different chowders. I wouldn't describe any of them as traditional, and many of the chowder cooks were clearly straining for the Zeitgeist, of which local and sustainable are the twin mantras. (Hey, count me in!)
There were chowders with pork belly, chowders incorporating duck fat, and others with Hatch chile powder, chicken, scallops, and salmon ("My mother sent it from Juneau," the cook excitedly proclaimed of the latter). For the lactose intolerant, Erynn Sosinski's #9, "Call Me Fishmael," showed a fine literary sensibility while incorporating zero dairy. Ted Smith's (#11) chowder had so many ingredients that I couldn't get to the end of the list. "It's kinda like a San Francisco cippolino," he noted, stirring a vat of the ultra-chunky potage. There was even a vegetarian chowder, courtesy of Shana Wright (#2, "Dr. Strangeplant"), containing eggplant and "sea vegetables," among other ingredients.
"Thickened Old School, with bread crumbs," according to Erynn Sosinski (#9)
Ladled into small, recyclable paper cups, the servings of chowder were rarely unaccompanied. One came with a bacon gougere as a distracion, while another came with a big puffy homemade roll. One cook dropped a crab fritter into the soup, while another deposited flakes of sundried cheese. Chopped scallions was the most common -- and most conventional -- addition.
As the Jimmy's became mobbed around 2 pm (the event lasted from noon till 5 pm), I slipped out, unwilling to wait till 5 pm to find out who won. (See comments, below, for the winners.) The chowders achieved a fairly high level of culinary wizardry, some chunky, some thin, but, as in episodes of Top Chef, novel ingredients and techniques were featured, even though a perfect bowl of plain old New England or Manhattan chowder proabably would have won.