Monday, April 23, 2012
A long story involving clam chowder and a pony.
Many people have asked us for the recipe for our World Famous© clam chowder. When we get done laughing, we look into their doleful eyes and tell them that while we have a traditional recipe for New England style clam chowder we will happily share with them, it won’t be the same. Our clam chowder’s unique flavor is achieved not only through its careful combination of ingredients, but also from the fact that we produce it in 5-gallon batches in a seasoned copper pot that looks like a witch’s cauldron. Just as one cannot grow champagne grapes in Hawaii, you cannot make authentic Smugglers’ Inn World Famous© clam chowder in that crock pot you bought at Costco. If you want the real deal, you need to come to Blaine, Minnesota.
We don’t do take-out, either. Like a deep-sea creature that perishes when hauled to shallow depths, our chowder curdles when you reheat it. Our employees all know this.
So, when one of our waiters said that his customer was demanding to speak to the manager (me) about a clam chowder order, I assumed that here was just another D-bag who didn’t know the meaning of “no”. Not to say there are idiots in Blaine, Minnesota, but some of our citizens couldn’t spell the word if you spotted them the “N” or the “O”.
“Gentleman!” I said, strolling over to a table where two enormous men with ZZ Top beards were drinking Bud Lights. “You wanted to see me?”
“I’m getting married next week,” the man with the cleanest beard said, foregoing any pleasantries.
“I’m the best man!” declared the other with a good deal more enthusiasm.
“Congratulations to both of you.”
“Your clam chowder is killer,” continued the first man, whom I’d only then noticed was missing teeth. “I’m wondering if you’d like to make up a batch for my reception in Cloquet. There’s gonna be, like, 200 people.”
“I’m very sorry. I’m afraid we’re not set up...”
“I’ll give you a grand, cash.”
“Can do!” I said and motioned for their waiter, who was hovering at the edge of earshot, to fetch another round for these fine gentlemen. If my experience in advertising has taught me anything, it is that you never turn down $1,000. Where exactly was Cloquet, anyway?
A week proved not too long to get ready for our first catering gig. Mr. Interweb informed us that Cloquet was 2 ½ hours away. We would need to transport our precious cargo 135 miles without letting it cool down. Getting that much chowder ready at once was another challenge. We have some crazy huge stockpots, but 200 bowls?
It was a puzzler until one of our beer suppliers hooked us up with a home brewer who had copper vat that was about the right size. It even came with a gas burner. All we had to do was arrive 2 hours early and we could the chowder right there.
On the morning of the wedding, we loaded the vat onto a truck driven by one of our cooks, Jorge #3, who seemed up for the adventure, despite his having closed the night before. I was driving a van with the ingredients, cutlery, a folding table, soup bowls and our trainee, Caitlyn. Caitlyn had graduated from a cooking school that had taught her how to make a soufflé’, but had neglected to teach her the most fundamental kitchen skill of them all. So, it would be my task to interpret Jorge’s Spanglish for her, omitting offensive language and sexual advances directed at Smugglers’ Inn’s first female kitchen worker.
Our little caravan was on the road at 7:30 AM, and to everyone’s surprise, we arrived in Cloquet half an hour ahead of schedule. As it turns out, we needed the extra time to find the location. Our directions sent us a little ways West of Cloquet, into the boonies. We saw one little dirt road that seemed to be the turnoff to the location, but it was chained off and looked unused. We kept driving and soon came to a massive sign marking the border of the Cloquet National Forest, a landmark our directions told us indicated we had traveled too far.
There was no cell service, of course. I drove on, hoping to find a park ranger who might be able to tell me where I’d gone wrong. No luck. Seems Cloquet National Forest isn’t a big enough attraction of have a visitor center.
“Are we lost?”
Caitlyn, who had been asleep the entire trip, woke up just as I was turning the van around.
“Looks that way,” I said. “I was going to head back to town until I had enough bars to find out where this invisible turnoff is.”
“Where are those bikes going?” Caitlyn said, pointing down the road from whence we’d come. ”Could that be it?” I could see nothing but a dotted line and birch trees converging in a point. Oh, to have young eyes again.
We soon reached the dirt road that we’d passed from the other direction. The chain was now down and there were fresh sets of narrow tire tracks, like what a pair of motorcycles might make. We followed these down an overgrown road, tree branches scraping the side of our van the entire way. About 200 yards in, the road ended in a big clearing by a stream. Two Harley Davidsons were on their kickstands, parked on a patch of stones. Their owners were busy trying to start a small outboard motor that was on the ground. Maybe the boat was coming.
“Hey, clam chowder!” one yelled, waving his arm. I saw it was the Best Man.
We parked our vehicles and I went over to talk to the bikers, relieved that we were in the right place. I was visibly less relieved when I saw that what I’d taken for an outboard motor turned out to be a McColluch chainsaw. I looked over my shoulder to see if Jorge was getting out of the truck. Nope.
“Don’t worry, buddy, we ain’t gonna cut your head off just because you’re early.” The two bikers laughed at this. I laughed, too; it seemed the safe thing to do.
“I just wanted to make sure Billy here was set up before I go back and put on my monkey suit. He’s in charge of the roast.”
“Roast?” I asked.
“What did you think?” asked the biker called Billy, ”We was just gonna serve soup at this shindig? I’m in charge of the roast, another brother’s doing beans and the gals are all in charge of desert. You need me to cut some firewood for you, too, Chowder Guy?”
I told him that we had brought our own. I set up the table and Caitlyn prepared the ingredients for the clam chowder while Jorge’ struggled to get the gas lit under the brewer’s vat. Turns out my translating skills weren’t required, since it was clear the two weren’t speaking to each other. Fine. I watched the guy with the chainsaw cut up a few downed trees before starting in on a live birch. When he had enough wood to build log cabin, he began stacking it into a pentagram, with larger logs on the bottom and progressively smaller ones on top. It was really beautiful. I was reminded that we needed to find an art director for our growing advertising sideline. Maybe this guy could be trained to tend bar as well?
A noise the was louder and, to my ears, more annoying than the chainsaw announced the arrival an ancient, un-muffled Ford pickup truck that bounced out of the woods and drove right up to the log pentagram. Two men got out and they, along with the woodcutter, pulled out some rusty iron bars from the back of the truck, which they pounded into the stony ground with much cursing and swearing. The bars had “V”’s welded on the ends to accommodate a spit.
The whole thing looked grossly all out of scale, but I suppose one cannot serve 200 people with a capon. I was half expecting a couple of Harleys would ride up with a very large pig or perhaps an entire side of beef slung between them, but the meat was in the bed of the pickup, hiding under a tarp.
Cars and motorcycles with wedding guests started arriving exactly two hours after we’d put the chowder on, so things worked out perfectly. The head count was probably only 120, but our chowder pot and a keg of beer were the only games in town, the roast looking hours away from cooked and the guy with the beans AWOL. I would have liked to have stuck around and seen the motorcycle jousting, but things were already getting a little crazy and I was worried about Caitlyn. She had not said a word to either Jorge or me since she’d walked over to offer a 20 lb bag of potatoes and some other leftover vegetables to the bikers turning the spit. It was clear that she intended to remain in the van with the doors locked for the duration. I sent Jorge out to retrieve all the bowls that didn’t get didn’t get tossed in the fire and I went to search out the best man. He paid up, in cash. We were back in Blaine in time for Jorge’ to open for dinner.
Our first excursion into the world of catering had been a near-total success. Let’s be honest; Caitlyn was never going to work out, anyway.
On the heels of this welcome expansion of our core business, our advertising sideline has been cracking the freelance market. We’ve Smug-ifyed a couple of new business pitches for big agencies (well, bigger than us), garnering rave reviews. All in all, it was a good month for everyone.
Except for that poor pony, A.K.A. “the roast”.