Gaffers and OVFD Win Clammys

Jenny Scarborough, Crystal Canterbury

Traditional Ocracoke chowder is clams, pig, two vegetables, two seasonings.

That's all it took to enter the Third Annual Clam Chowder Cook Off: clams, their juice, onion, potatoes, salt pork or bacon, salt and pepper.

Leslie Monticone demonstrates How a Donation is Made with Karen Lovejoy.
Leslie Monticone demonstrates How a Donation is Made with Karen Lovejoy.
All the ingredients can be locally harvested or cheaply imported from across the sound. Black pepper is the most exotic thing on the list. (Does the lack of any grain or dairy make it a food of the moment?) The cook must extract every flavor to create a harmonious broth. Onions are sweet, clams salty, and salt pork is delicious. Hot pepper vinegar (hot and sour) is often offered with the chowder.

Any other ingredient is taboo, according to Ruth Toth, a Chef, pupil of history, and one of the many volunteers who helped organize and host the event. Ruth added both butter and cream to the "Ocracoke style" clam chowder she served in her restaurant. Three of eight entrants in the third Ocracoke Child Care Clam Chowder Cook Off dared to prepare traditional Ocracoke chowders.  

Over half of the 115 people who paid $10 to taste and vote were visitors to the island, said former OCC board member Karen Lovejoy, who greeted people at the door. Education was in order. Many were familiar only with milk based chowders prior to the event, she said.

In 2016, Van O'Neal, representing OVFD, took the Golden Clammy for best traditional chowder. Those are big white rubber boots to fill. Van is known for his seafood stews at each winter's Working Watermen's Oyster roast. 

Postmaster Celeste Brooks, representing the US Postal Service and competing for the third time, was hoping 2017 would be her year. She didn't grow up eating chowder: her preparation comes from "Ocracoke, and Ocracokers," she said. Hers was the clammiest of the clam chowders on offer. The bivalve meat was tender and nicely ground. I had a second helping, this time with the permitted inclusion of pepper vinegar. "It totally changes the flavor profile," said Celeste. 

The 2017 Golden Clammys
The 2017 Golden Clammys

"I am after the trophy," asserted Celeste. The Golden Clammys are each a unique artwork by Susan Dodd, fantastical pieces crafted with paint, hot glue, discarded household items, and bits of creatures now dead. Clammys are coveted.

Chowder Cook Off competitors are required to list their ingredients, and the final ingredient Celeste included was "Love."

Ocracoke Child Care was a lifesaver to her when she needed it, Celeste told OCC Director DeAnna Locke during the event. Although her kids are now in elementary school she still finds time to support the non-profit. "It's a necessity to this island to have a good – no, a great – day care center," said Celeste, who credits OCC with expanding her daughter's palate. Shayna popped by for another dose of chowder. Her vote was in.

After tasting all the traditional chowders, Dave Robinson said his Granny's is still the best chowder he's ever eaten. 

Nicole O'Neal attended with her two children even though she doesn't like clam chowder. Her children use the daycare, and Nicole came to show her support and get goodies from the bake sale table. 

When all the votes were in, Gaffer's Sports Pub took home the 2017 Golden Clammy for best traditional chowder. It is the same recipe that is on their menu, said owner Ashley Harrell. She missed the announcement, the applause, and the photo opp, as she was carting utensils back to her restaurant. "I won? Great!" she said, upon hearing the news. 

Gaffer's also competed in the non-traditional category, where the ingredient lists were significantly longer. Head Chef James Stewart used a creamy clam base for his chowder which featured homemade bear sausage. If you didn't taste it on Saturday, you'll have to befriend James for the recipe, because wild-caught game meat is a no-no for a commercial establishment. It was rich, creamy and comforting.

Fess Winstead of Blue Heron Realty was missed this year, commented several chowder cooks. His preparations always involve proteins from game. 

Individual entrant (and photographer for this article) Crystal Canterbury honored her roots in the "great state of Maryland." Her chowder had a clear broth, old bay, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery and clams. Hey, Crystal, I want the recipe. Crumbled saltines made it even better. 

Winning mother daughter duo Tree Ray and Carissa VanderVere represented OVFD, which has taken home a Clammy two years in a row.
Winning mother daughter duo Tree Ray and Carissa VanderVere represented OVFD, which has taken home a Clammy two years in a row.

The chowder from Dajio had the best garnish, a simple, bright addition of chopped spring onions. The chowder was sinful and dark, begun by Chef Doug Eifert with a lobster stock. Ingredients included shiso mushrooms, sesame oil, ginger and soy. I didn't care that clams weren't the star; it was real tasty. 

Two entrants were other island non-profits. Tim Fields, representing WOVV, said he "just made it up" when asked about his recipe. He started a bluefish stock the day before, simmering in aromatics like lemongrass. Tim's cooking always make one long for the days of Cat Ridge Deli, his former restaurant.

As good as the competition was, as soon as I tasted the chowder Tree Ray of OVFD was serving, my vote was cast. I was not influenced by her adorable bunny ears and plastic firefighters cap. At the end of the event people grabbed to-go containers to take home portions. Retired-Lady-in-Charge Leslie Monticone and I clustered near Tree's ambrosia. I commented that I liked the delicate kiss of heat at the end. 

"Yes. The Fire Department chowder is a little..." Leslie paused, circled her hand in the air for a moment.

"Flame-boyant?" suggested Tree. 

Tree is a new member of OVFD and she already "digs it." As one of nine women firefighters for the department, Tree said it's easier than her day job commercial fishing. She was off to the fish house to show off her barbie and oil lamp Clammy shortly after her victory was declared. "I'm going to carry it all day," said Tree, startling a visitor by doing some dance moves in the parking lot of the Variety Store. 

Her mom, Carissa VanderVere, served as sous chef. The night prior they sauteed onion and celery, cooked the bacon, and cleaned and chopped the clams, which Carissa picked up fresh in Beaufort on her way to the island. The morning of, everything simmered for two hours, and "then we let it sit for an hour. Then we showed up here!" said Carissa.

James Stewart, head chef at Gaffer's, sporting his Golden Clammy
James Stewart, head chef at Gaffer's, sporting his Golden Clammy

"I tweaked it from two other recipes. Tree added one ingredient, butter, and now it's her recipe," said Carissa. "We're Polish. Tree's quite a good Polish cook." (A proud mother instructed me to put that last bit in there.) 

The ingredients for the winning chowder are clams, their juice, onion, celery, bacon, potatoes, lemon, butter, half and half, salt, pepper, cayenne, and old bay. 


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