Chowing Down Chowdah
PETER JOHANSEN joins the festivities in Bethel, Maine.
Robin Farquhar likes chowder. My friend is such a fan he can even tell you the origin of the word: chaudière, the pot French fishermen once cooked stew in. So last September, we trekked together to Bethel, Maine, to join hundreds of others, chowing down “chowdah” at the pretty mountain town’s annual Harvestfest and Chowdah Cookoff.
A village tucked into the eastern flank of New England’s White Mountains might not be where you’d expect to savour chunky seafood soup. But tell that to Farquhar, a retired university president. Besides sampling about 10 versions of the dish, whipped up by the region’s best chefs, chowder heads like him also listened to live music, visited vendors hawking everything from quilted table runners to organic cosmetics, watched wood carving demonstrations, got faces painted, rode horse-drawn wagons and sipped local craft beer. Other activities included demonstrations of cider pressing and rug hooking, a tour of a local sawmill, a flyfishing competition and a 45-mile scenic mountain bike ride.
Farquhar’s love of chowder dates back to a childhood on Vancouver Island. His family gathered clams at their beach home and he also dined on lots of chowder at the island’s restaurants, he says. All that has led to his favourite: New England clam chowder. “I like to keep it simple,” he says. “I like to know what I’m eating, and that chowder fits the bill.” Last year in Bethel, offerings included not merely variations on traditional New England clam chowder, however. Other recipes featured creamy corn, Cajun seafood and halibut.
Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, which organizes the event, says: “Our chowder’s almost always milk based, but the variety is wonderful. And there’s no salt and pepper on the tables, so you eat it in its purest form.”
For $13, visitors get four-ounce samples of each entry, a cold drink and dessert. The lineup can be long. But once chowder’s in hand, folks sit at outdoor tables, slurp their soup, and vote for a favourite. Last year the professional judges’ top three choices mirrored those of the public. While the chowder competition is for working chefs only, amateurs get into the act with apple pie — a nod to the “harvest” part of the festival. After judging, those entries become dessert.
The festival began as a way to bring visitors to town during the slow tourist season between the end of summer and the fall foliage season, Zinchuk says. For a town of just 2,500, those tourism highlights are many. There are strolls through the unusually tidy downtown, a national historic site with structures dating back to the 1770s. There’s a sparkling new state mineral museum in the works; its collection stretches from Maine to Mars. Picturesque drives by mountain rivers offer chances to view moose and other wildlife. Nearby is the state’s top golf course; so, too, opportunities for mountain biking, whitewater rafting and kayaking, trout fishing in the Upper Androscoggin River, and hiking (the area boasts the most challenging mile of the entire Appalachian Trail). There’s even an L.L. Bean outdoor school.
And after all that activity, refuelling options are plentiful at the area eateries, a choice made easier — or not — once you’ve sampled the festival entries. Because it topped the judging, we opted for 22 Broad Street, an upscale Italian restaurant in a surprisingly cozy Greek Revival mansion. Its crispy eggplant lasagna and chicken breast, stuffed with goat cheese and apricots, proved the kitchen’s skills go far beyond chowder. And how we chose that restaurant sits well with Zinchuk.
The chowdah cookoff is meant to serve as a showcase for restaurants, she says. Chowder is the focus because “it’s a fall thing. It’s stick-to-your-ribs and, if the weather is cooler, you eat chowder to stay warm.” But she hints the cookoff may be a victim of its own success. Chefs find themselves so busy now that it’s tough to steal away from their kitchen for festival day. That may not faze my friend Farquhar. “Servings were certainly ample to get a good taste of each,” he says. “I couldn’t finish them all.”
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Homemade goods for sale; A medley of chowdah; Wagon ride in Bethel’s historic downtown; Punkin’ Paintin’.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM Apple pie LEFT entries; Enjoying Harvestfest.