Chowder fest conjures images of ... beer

(Photo by William M. Dowd)
TROY, NY -- After sampling two dozen different entries as a judge in the 6th annual Troy Chowder Fest competition this afternoon, my thoughts turned to beverages. Only natural, considering food and drink are my mainstay topics.

But, what does one imbibe with such a wide variety of creations -- from classic New England clam chowders to such exotica as Guinness scented hickory smoked corn and ancho chilis chowder, jerk chicken, autumn pear and smoked Reuben chowders, varieties that drew several thousand people to the riverside event behind Brown's Brewing despite overcast, rainy skies?

Beer, of course, and that thought comes to mind not only because we were doing the judging inside the brewpub's Revolution Hall event space. Yes, a bold pinot noir, or a tangy malbec or even a citrus-tinged seyval blanc might work if you insist on wine. But, only beer has the tasty edge, the cleansing carbonation to cut through all the creams and hot peppers and mixed spices the chefs used to concoct their chowders. Even if you're not a regular beer drinker -- which seems to be a growing number of the population, according to all sales statistics -- beer will do the trick.

There may be something to the theory that because beer was the drink of the common man and chowder originated as a meal cooked by the lower economic classes, our DNA's palate is hard-wired to pair the two.

Fish chowders were the ancestors of clam chowder. Some of the chowders I sampled today were topped with a bit of puff pastry or a crisp crouton, mimicking the practice of our early settlers who usually broke ship's biscuits into their seafood chowders to help thicken them.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the very word "chowder" can be traced to fishing villages along the coast of France, as well as in southwestern England and Brittany which flank the English Channel. It was the practice in the 16th and 17th centuries to have a large cauldron -- a "chaudiere" -- ready to cook some of the catch when the fishing boats returned to port and celebrations ensued.

There may have been some in the festival crowd here today who were there to escape financial worries for a few hours, but they no doubt were in the minority. That is very unlike the populace of such places as Brighton, England, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Chowder-centric revelry probably was helpful in letting the locals forget for the moment the miserable economic and hygiene conditions in which many of them lived. Writing in 1860 in "Brighton As It Is," one J.G. Bishop described the hardscrabble fishing village this way:

"The houses of the poor in Brighton, which are situated in narrow streets and courts, are for the most part ill-ventilated, badly drained, if at all. The numbers which are huddled together in them render decency and decorum next to impossible. Many of them being built with inferior bricks and mortar made of sea-sand are wretchedly damp so that even the walls are covered with lichens, and the miserable tenants, unable to endure the depression of spirits which is the necessary result, try to drown their uneasy sensations in the neighbouring beer shops."

So, count your blessings, cook your chowder and chill your beer. All in all, I’m sure we’d rather be here than in Brighton.

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