Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cookoff 2014

A booth at the Santa Cruz 2014 Clam Chowder Cookoff /Photo Michelle Locke

“We’ve got the amateur table, so I’ll give you some advice: Take small sips. If it’s green avoid it. But don’t worry, it’s great fun!” And with that sage advice my adventures as a judge at the 33rd annual  Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cookoff began.

The contest, which took place last weekend, was my first time as a food judge. I’ve reviewed wines before, but, boy was this different. A LOT more laughs at the chowder table. No spitting. And, beer to “cleanse the palate.” This is something that I think would be an excellent addition to wine tastings.

The event , sponsored by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the City of Santa Cruz, raises funds for local parks and at a pretty good clip, too; last year’s total was $62,000.

There are two categories, Boston and Manhattan and two competitive divisions, individual, i.e. amateur, and professionals, local restaurants, etc. There were about 70 soups in all, although we divided the duties so no one had to taste all 70.

Mmm. Clams. /Photo Michelle Locke

Before the tasting started we pinned on our handsome “Judge” ribbons and wandered up and down the Boardwalk evaluating booths for “Most Creative.”

I have never been so warmly welcomed in my life. It was a beautiful thing, especially for a former news reporter.

Staying true to my profession, I based my picks on wordplay, nominating the Silence of the Clams team along with Clam Halen and the UC Santa Cruz dining services. (OK, their name wasn’t too catchy but gotta love a team that kept yelling out, “Get your chowdah cum laude, right here.”) Also, the school mascot is a banana slug which has to count for something.

I asked each team what their secret ingredient was. Answers included “corn,” “it’s a secret,” “fresh thyme” and “human flesh.” One guess which team came up with that last one.

Then it was inside to sip soups. I whipped out my pen, purloined borrowed from my room at the fabulous Santa Cruz Dream Inn. And then looked up and realized I was sitting across from a Dream Inn guy.

“This is totally not a pen I just ripped off from your hotel,” I said, adding, “Ha ha,” for maximum sophistication.

I am suave.

UCSC Dining Services clam chowder contest booth /Photo Michelle Locke

We were looking for consistency, not too thick, not too thin, a good clam-y taste, and nothing too distracting. Team that decided to put chunks of tomato in your Boston clam chowder? Sorry, no.

Some of the soups were meh. Some were not bad. And some were a sublime expression of clam chowder. To wit, milk-bacon soup with a generous handful of non-rubbery clams and tender but not mushy cubes of potato.

There were times when I felt myself slipping into wine tasting mode. I caught myself once or twice trying to swirl the chowder, which resulted in slinging some of it on the table, and invariably sniffed before I sipped. At one point I forgot myself entirely and declared, “Hmm, I get a little white pepper on the finish,” which led another judge to look at me, impressed, and say, “How did you know that?”

“Because I’m full of sh*t,” I was compelled to answer sheepishly.

Suave, I tell you.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk /Photo Michelle Locke

It took about an hour and a half to narrow down the finalists and about another 30 minutes to crown winners. We were tasting blind, naturally, so it wasn’t until later that I found out that Silence of the Clams won in the individual category for Boston chowder, go you little cannibals. And UCSC dining services were tops in the professional group for Manhattan. You rock, slug punsters.

It was a fun afternoon and a great way to start what I have NO DOUBT will be a long and glorious career as a food judge.

But it will be a while before I eat clam chowder again.