The LBI 30th Annual Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic: A Bizarre Ode to Soup
The Long Beach Island Chowderfest Cook-Off Classic has become something of a long-running joke between me and my girlfriend. What has been a staple of her childhood has to me always been just another of the billion or so events that Long Beach Island and the surrounding areas hold every year. Not that I'm complaining—there aren't a whole lot of things going on around Central New Jersey, aside from the occasional food truck festival, and I usually find myself going out of my way to find something interesting to do. Usually though, none of those things involve being shuffled into a large open-air festival ground to eat ungodly amounts of soup.
My first warning should have been the parking. My girlfriend assured me there would be a lot of people, but I've seen a lot of people and this is not that. Parking was difficult to find, not just because of the lack of available spaces, but also because of the throngs of soup connoisseurs roaming the streets. We did find parking (it cost $10, but we found it), but I ran into my second omen during the process—which was that Chowderfest fans actually had festival-specific paraphernalia. If you wear a band t-shirt to a rock concert and a foam finger to a baseball game, what do you wear to a soup festival? The answer, apparently, is a hat in the shape of a clam with cartoon eyes on it. On children, this takes up most of their heads, to the point where I had to do a few double takes to make sure the adults were in fact bringing humans along with them to this event.
By the time we reached the event, I assumed it wouldn't take too long to get in. It had been several hours since it started, and my girlfriend assured me that the mornings were the worst (I never received an explanation for this). This assumption was foolish. The line was in fact so long, that it doubled back on itself and snaked back in the opposite direction, and once you passed an arch that made it look like you had finally achieved chowder nirvana, you in fact had to snake back and forth two more times in a gated section, not unlike something you would see at an amusement park. I usually try not to eat in the mornings if I am going to a food festival, and at this point in time, I really was regretting this decision.
Upon entering, and I mean actually entering, not walking through the deceptive welcoming archway that is really the halfway point of the line, you are given a wristband and several colored tokens. Each token, I am told, allows you to vote for a chowder from a different category. There are apparently three: New England, Manhattan, and Creative. Now, I'm not exactly what you would call a soup fanatic, though this festival is evidence that they do in fact exist, but I know that I like creamy, hearty New England chowders more than the more tomato and vegetable based Manhattans. My girlfriend disagrees, which turns out to be to my advantage, as when we start the soup tastings, I usually get the remains of her New England chowders, which are the soups we decide to taste first.
Time for a brief detour, as I think it is time I recount the tragedy of the forgotten soup palette. Before we left for the festival, my girlfriend showed me what I assumed was a ludicrous palette in which to hold soup samples while you are at the festival. It looks just like a painting palette, but with holes in it for soup cups and a big ol' clam on it. Thinking it would be embarrassing and silly to bring this along, I was kind of happy when she forgot it, but once we were firmly in the festival grounds, I was reminded that I am a fool, and also no fun. Everyone at this festival worth their salt had a goddamn soup palette. If they didn't have a palette, they had a repurposed baking sheet, and if they didn't have that, they had a two-level soup scepter with which they could hold upwards of 15(!) soup cups. Lesson learned: Don't be a stick in the mud. You will miss out on soup.
And I did, probably, miss out on maximum chowder/soup-age. The tents where the various vendors (Blue Water Cafe, Howard's, Chicken or the Egg, and many others) were packed with people, and your best bet was to worm your way to the front of the masses, grab as much soup as you could hold (here's where the trays are key) and exit where you can eat in peace. Sensing my hunger-induced agitation, my girlfriend became the established soup runner, and ran back and forth with sample after sample. The New England chowders didn't vary much in consistency or form, with the exception of one restaurant that had a lot more potatoes. The best, in my opinion, was Howard's Restaurant, apparently a local favorite, and, as it would turn out, the winner that day. The Manhattan's were a little bit more of a blur to me, but they were all delicious as well, with Stefano's being my favorite (though they lost to Lefty's, a travesty).
More interesting than either category though, was the Creative category, if only because of the sheer effort the chefs put into being "out of the box" (presumably, their originality factored in here and not just the taste). Sure, there were places like the Blue Water Cafe serving lobster bisque, and another joint serving corn chowder, but you also had a place that made clam chowder ice cream. "What's more creative than chowder ice-cream?" the sign said (approximately) and I answered with an indignant "probably chowder ice cream that doesn't just taste like vanilla ice cream with lumps in it," to no response. Also in the category was a soup made from snapper turtle, which my girlfriend refused to eat since she believed the species was endangered, and which I refused to eat because up to this point, I hadn't gone up to get any of my own soup yet. Finally, there was a restaurant all the way from Ireland that made a really delicious bisque, which they garnished with homemade soda bread. I voted for them, and they lost, but I didn't see any other places serving soda bread, so they will always be the winners in my heart.
So, what's the verdict then? Well, first of all, its a lot of soup for one hot afternoon, and I started to flip back to thinking the palettes were dumb when I realized one sample of about 15 different chowders was enough to make me uncomfortably full, though not uncomfortable enough to eat a peanut butter cookie on the way out. The food is great, but the price is kind ridiculous (each ticket is $30), especially since any non-chowder foods cost tickets, which you can only buy in sheets of $20. Furthermore, in order to buy beer, you have to buy a $10 beer mug along with it, and any additional beer is $7, meaning you irritatingly can get only two beers per $20 sheet, being just 1 ticket shy of getting a third. And I did feel quite out of place. Chowderfest is something of an event down in LBI, but watching clam-headed families arrive in mass to eat soup is a little strange when you aren't used to it, especially when there is a man in a velociraptor suit right near the exit, whom I was assured is at all different kinds of events in the area. But if its a nice day and you are at least an amateur foodie, there isn't really any reason not to go. Either you've been there already and you get to enjoy music and food, or you haven't and you get to enjoy music and food with a bizarre cavalcade of traditions you don't understand. What's not to love?