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The secret to prize-winning clam chowder revealed

Ashley Harrell, Gaffer’s proprietor, who won the traditional category, poses with Tree Ray, cooking for the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, winner of the non-traditional chowder.

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Text and photos by Connie Leinbach

Theresa Ray’s first time ever making clam chowder was excellent enough to win top honors in the non-traditional category of the Third Annual Clam Chowder Cook-Off Saturday in the Ocracoke Community Center.

The event benefited Ocracoke Childcare Center and raised more than $2,400, said DeAnna Locke, director.

Competing against four other entries, Ray, who is a commercial fisherman, submitted her entry on behalf of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department of which she is a newly installed member.

A woman of few words, Ray, who goes by the first name of “Tree,” said, “It was ‘clam-tastic.’ I was happy to do it on behalf of the fire department.”

Tree Ray, second from right, and her mother Clarissa VanderVere, right, serve Trees non-traditional chowder

Ray’s mother, Carissa VanderVere of Winterville, Pitt County, was more garrulous, and while Ray ladled samples of her soup, VanderVere explained that the recipe was one she fashioned herself from several she collected over the years.

But she didn’t touch a utensil.

“I was the sous chef,” VanderVere said. “Tree did all of the work.”

She did reveal the secret to the taste the 130 attendees sampled and 55 voted the best non-traditional.

“Butter,” VanderVere said, and some Half-and-Half.

VanderVere said she was the chef of the crab and shrimp bisque that was added to the 2015 Oyster Roast at the Fish House, which Ray had organized.

The winner of the three “traditional” chowder entries was Gaffer’s.

“My head chef, James Stewart made it,” said Ashley Harrell, Gaffer’s proprietor. “It’s the soup we have on our menu.”  He also made Gaffer’s non-traditional entry that included bear and venison sausage.

Last year’s traditional winner, Corkey’s Store, did not compete this year.

In this contest, while anything goes for non-traditional chowder, traditional Ocracoke clam chowder includes only clams and their juice, water, potatoes, onions, salt pork or bacon, salt and pepper.  Pepper vinegar and hot sauce may be used as condiments.

Katy and Jamie Anderson, right, of New Bern, add some pepper vinegar to to ‘Sweet B’s Chowder,’ made by Ocracoke’s Postmaster Celeste Brooks, left.

Many tasters enjoyed the option of pepper vinegar that Ocracoke’s postmaster, Celeste Brooks, provided with her traditional chowder, which she dubbed “Sweet B’s” and which came in second after Gaffer’s.

This vinegar was a new twist that Katy and Jamie Anderson of New Bern enjoyed for their first time attending the chowder cook-off.

“It was fantastic,” Katy said.

First-time chowder chef Crystal Canterbury was decked out in Maryland state flag colors while she served samples of her “Dingbatter Clam Chowder,” a Maryland-style seafood stew.

“I’m having a blast,” she said, explaining that the distinction of this soup is the Old Bay seasoning.

But she learned something new about her stew, which also included carrots.

“I found out from some Southerners today that the carrots are a Maryland thing,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

Ocracoke’s community radio station, WOVV, whose entry by Debbie Wells won the non-traditional last year, was represented by Tim Fields, who created “Lemon-Lime Chowder” this year.

“It’s based on hot-and-sour soup,” he said, including fish stock, leeks and jalapeno peppers.

Dajio’s entry, which came in second to Tree’s Chowder in the non-traditional category, also had Asian flavors, featuring whole clams, shiitake mushrooms and lobster stock.

The third entrant for the traditional soups was the Pirate’s Chest.

“Now we know there’s more than just Manhattan and New England clam chowder,” said tasters Jo and Doug Adams of Huntersville. “They’re all delicious.”

Soo Cho and Bryan Krekel and their two daughters visiting from Washington, D.C., agreed.

“There are lots of different flavors and a good spirit here,” Cho said.

The ‘Golden Clamshell Awards,’ original art trophies created by Susan Dodd, were the prizes for this years top chowders. The ‘traditional’ trophy is on left and the ‘non-traditional’ trophy is at right.