Sunday, November 16, 2008

Clam chowder: requiem for a dream.

Since today was the last day of running around New England, I determined that today would also be the day I had clam chowder for lunch. Driving from Maine to Provincetown? Surely there would be chowder opportunities aplenty. Alas, when college daughter and I left Maine, we neglected to calculate the effect that a breakfast beverage might have on, oh, say, when or where we might stop to pee.

Skip ahead to Hwy. 6, halfway between Boston and Provincetown. We were navigating by holding a spit-finger to the wind, and the wind was saying, "I don't know where in THE hell we are, and as for a clean public restroom? Beats the hell outta me." Also, one might consider the fact that many locations on the Cape are vacation-y and therefore--oh, and also, it's Sunday--closed for the season.

So, we're in thriving downtown Barnstable, made up, as far as we could tell, by equal parts Episcopal churches, fire stations, gorgeous picturesque houses, and closed antique stores. Our GPS robot was telling us about restaurants that may or may not have been in the area, in any direction from where we were driving. We chose a restaurant with Dolphin in the title. (Have you forgotten that we needed to pee? Don't forget this fact.) And lo! The Dolphin appeared before us, along with the Barnstable Tavern and the Village Cafe.

The Dolphin looked very swanky and also possibly only barely open, and very swanky seemed in excess of our needs, so we turned around and thought, Village Cafe, just a couple of locations back. We hopped out of the car, our bladders doing all the reasoning for us. We stepped into the cafe and lo! it had the smell of two decades' worth of deep-fried food, which my actual brain processed just as the proprietress said, "Sit anywhere you want," and my mouth said, "Mind if we use the restroom first?" and my soul screamed, "NO NO NO NO NO!"

I am an old-fashioned girl, and once you've decided to avail yourself--gratefully!--of an establishment's facilities, it is my view that you must buy something there. They don't just have a restroom so anyone in the world can just casually stop by to pee without also ordering up some fries or a sandwich or something. Or chowder.

And so, dear reader, I ordered the chowder. At the counter. And the waitress said, "Ohhhhh, chowder, right, it's on the menu but I don't think we have it on Sunday."

Deeply disappointing, right? But the cook, behind a fortress made of stainless steel that was probably coated with the grease of the ages, said: "We can heat some up."

"Are you sure?" I said, when a rational person would have said, "Umm, do you have like a bag of pretzels? and a Coke? or, like, maybe a Coke and a bottle of 409 spray and a roll of paper towels?" But no. No, I said, "Great!" And shortly after that, a plastic tub of chowder, labeled "CHOWDER," appeared from the walk-in and disappeared behind the stainless steel. And then, probably three minutes and thirty seconds later, the chowder appeared, in a shallow bowl, over the stainless steel barrier. With some steam wafting, a positive omen, I thought.

But I was wrong.

No, the chowder was lukewarm, or rather, of uneven heat, sort of how a big bowl of soup is when you microwave but do not stir. Moreover, the soup was extra salty, as if salt were the only possible seasoning ever to grace chowder. There it sat, looking like the paragon of chowder, clam-filled and potato-y and even a little creamy. Why was it so nasty? Why?

Here's what I did and did not do: I did not ask for more nuke to be applied to my soup. I did not not eat the soup. No, I sprinkled both packets of oyster crackers on the surface of the soup, and I ate each little cracker, lightly anointed with the soup, telling myself this: "Having made the deal to be polite and eating in a sorry place where even my low(ered) expectations were disappointed, I am not going to change the deal now. No, I will eat the misbegotten chowder and enough of it that I will not have to explain my not finishing it. I like oyster crackers. I like them!" I said this as the chowder cooled and got, yes, nastier.

My daughter asked me if perhaps I wanted to try to redeem my chowder luncheon by finding better chowder for dinner. No, no, I did not. The experience had embittered me. I may or may not eat chowder again, but it will be a cold day in hell before I order it again at a restaurant where the chowder has not been vetted by experts, aka, by me myself at a previous occasion. Even then. The whole concept seems fraught with peril. Milk, clams, potatoes, onions . . . I'm sure there is a long and storied history of how this came to be a beloved American dish, but I'm thinking that the real genius of the soup world is the inventor of the oyster cracker. Now there's a dish no one can screw up.


  1. This is the scariest horror story I've heard this year. I may not sleep tonight. Oh why, why not eat at the Dolphin?
    I hope one day you return to chowder--perhaps you could work your way back to clam through corn.

  2. abbey and I had a similar problem in RI. It was Sunday, so a lot of really neat-looking places were closed. Abbey really wanted a Brown sweatshirt, but no one was selling them that day.

    And as for no clam chowder on Sunday: what, are the clams at church?

  3. i am still sad about that meal but it is now getting slowly funnier and funnier...
    and the end result of the drive was very very worth it. :D

  4. oh how sad, a lost dream for chowder. But also, the peeing? the politeness to strangers? Hilarious.

  5. The badness of the chowder may be made up for by the hilarity of the story (for us). Alas, there is lots of chowder on Friday (soup of the day?). Perhaps this is a lesson that if one wants a special food, one must order it early and often in order to get the most stunning example of said food.
    Too bad Thompson's Clam Bar is (probably) closed for the season. I can sing a song to get you there:
    "Take route 28 to the clam bar sign for the happiest eating from 12 til 9, on route 28 in Harwich Port that's where you'll find Thompson's Clam Bar."
    Also my former employer: Chatham Fish and Lobstah, which is in Chatham, yes, but also....Harwich? And some other town that starts with B, but may not be where you were...
    in any case, I'm glad you're back...

  6. Hysterical. Come home and I will fix you my chowder. Or we'll go to the Broiler.

  7. See, this story of yours confirms my fear of clam chowder. The idea of creamy soup with potatoes and onions--delicious! add clams, which for some reason, whenever I've had them have had bits of something that makes me think of crunchy bits of oh, say, dirt, or worse--aaaack!

    So sorry you didn't get the expected, desired, soul-satisfying chowder you sought, and empathize completely with that bathroom thing--the demanding bladder and the 'how bad do I need to' vs 'am I really going into this place'?



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