in Wellfleet, Mass.
in Wellfleet, Mass.
One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting barefoot and shirtless on a stool at a lunch counter a block from the beach in Ogunquit, Maine, gulping down a bowl of clam chowder.
There was nothing particularly special about the chowder — it was pretty much like what you would have found anywhere along the New England seacoast: a generous mound of potatoes, onions and clams sitting in a broth of briny clam juice and whole milk. As often as not, there would be butter and paprika floating on the surface, with a few grains of sand sitting harmlessly at the bottom of the bowl.
Half a century later, however, a summer visitor to New England is hard-pressed to find such authentic chowder. Although omnipresent on menu boards in restaurants and seaside shacks, what passes for clam chowder now is most often a bowl of flour-thickened gruel in which tiny bits of chopped sea clams and overcooked potatoes wallow. The typical chowder is so gelatinous that if you stick in a plastic spoon, it will stand up straight. On average, it’s about as tasty as the paste used in elementary school art class — and, as my friend Mike Wheeler up in Gloucester points out, probably has better adhesive properties. Adding flour adds no flavor — in fact, it detracts from it.
John Thorne, a splendid food writer and author of “Simple Cooking,” warns that the tension between the thick and thin camps might be as old as chowder itself. The oldest recipes called for layering pork, clams, potatoes and common oyster crackers in a kettle, filling it with water and letting it stew until the meat was cooked and the crackers disintegrated, providing a certain thickness to the broth. And subsequent recipes called for using a thickener of a butter-and-flour roux. But Thorne is at a loss to explain the current craze for super-thick chowder, which he says has strayed so far from the original chowder traditions and practices that he rarely has the courage to order it.
My own hunch is that the trend might have picked up steam in the 1980s when Legal Sea Foods introduced a tasty but moderately thick clam chowder that almost immediately began outselling Legal’s fish chowder 10 to 1. These days, even Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz says he is “nauseated” by what he calls the “obscenely thick” chowders that dominate the marketplace and chowder competitions.
My search for a decent bowl of clam chowder got me thinking about consumer preferences — how they are established, how they are reinforced by market competition and how they change over time.
One of my first calls was to Greg Carpenter, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Carpenter explained that the way most of us think and talk about market competition is based on something of a mythical model in which consumers know what they want in a product and companies engage in a continuous battle to satisfy those preferences with better and better offerings.
In fact, Carpenter says, most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping. Moreover, such preferences are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.