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Seaport Day Puts Public In the Soup

What makes a great clam chowder? It’s a question Ralph Capobianco, the owner of King Street Blues, has answered before.

For the last two years, Capobianco’s chefs have won the Chowder Cook-Off at Alexandria’s Seaport Day. “The first time, we won it with a clam chowder with roasted corn,” he said.

The annual cook-off comes as part of Alexandria’s Seaport Day celebration, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 12, organized by the Seaport Foundation. “It’s a fun day,” said Capobianco, also a Foundation board member. “I’d like to see more people attend.”

Joe Youcha would like to see more people show up, too. Youcha, executive director of the Seaport Foundation, isn’t trying to milk them for money, though.

“This is not a fund-raising event. Nobody’s making money off of this,” he said. “It’s a celebration of the river. It’s this area’s greatest natural resource, and not enough people get to use it.”

YOUCHA AND OTHER Foundation members spend the whole year trying to raise awareness of the river, offering environmental education classes and shipbuilding lessons to teen-agers in and out of classrooms.

They offer courses on wetlands plants in schools, and teach teens to restore and rebuild antique boats – a way to keep historic craft in good condition, and build interest in the water for the students. “This year, we have worked with 3,000 kids,” Youcha said.

They also offer weekend sailing lessons for adults and after-school sailing classes for middle- and high-schoolers — lessons certified by the American Sailing Association.

But those may not attract quite as much attention as Seaport Day. The Foundation tries to draw the public to the waterfront, and the festival atmosphere of Seaport Day gets them there.

“One of the major things we try to do is provide access to the river and its heritage,” Youcha said. “This is a celebration of that.”

THE CHOWDER COOK-OFF offers food for attendees, and there will be music in the afternoon.

But there will also be rides on the river available to the public: rides in restored mahogany runabouts from the Antique Classic Boat Society; rides in the Potomac, a 42-foot restored workboat; and rides in rowboats and sailboats, old and new, large and small, owned by the Foundation or private boaters.

Over a dozen organizations will show off their programs, including the American Canoe Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The coolest is the Raptor Conservancy,” said Youcha, an organization dedicated to educating the public about birds of prey.

The Foundation’s boat-building program will get some exposure, with a public boat-building that will carry over into Sunday.

FAMILIES CAN TRY their hand at building smaller ships, too. George and Marla Surgent, owners of Seaworthy Small Ships, will bring their model boat kits to Seaport Day from Southern Maryland for the ninth year.

“We’ve been there since the inception,” Marla Surgent said. “My husband and I manufacture model boat kits, and we bring a 12-foot-wide model pond.”

They bring a line of models called the Pinewood Sailors – model boats that don’t require a lot of construction. “It’s just a matter of taping sails in place and decorating, and is it fun!” Surgent said. “We designed the Pinewood Sailors for festivals like this. They’re quick builds.”

But the models are not just hunks of wood with a sail stuck in them. They are designed by George Surgent, a boatwright, to duplicate the sailing of their full counterparts. “People say, ‘Oh, can we float these in the pond?’” Surgent said. “I tell them, you can float them, but they’re sailboats, and they really sail.”

The Surgents will bring three different styles of Pinewood Sailors to Seaport Day, all of which children and adults can build and sail for free. They will also be selling the model kits, with the square-rigger the Minnow going for $5, the jibsail Bermuda for $7.50 and the two-masted Sharpie going for $10.

WITH MODEL BOATS and boat rides, there are “lots of goodies for the kids,” and for families, said Capobianco. “I think it’s a good thing for the community.”

The Seaport Day, and the Chowder Cook-Off, recall waterfront festivals in New England, he said, especially in Mystic, Conn.

He’s looking forward to this year’s Seaport Day, he said, and hoping that King Street Blues will capture another Chowder Champion title. So, according to Capobianco what makes a great clam chowder?

“Simplicity,” Capobianco said. “Simplicity, good taste. And especially if you throw some lobster or something in, it’s gonna work.”

<sh>Clam Chowder

<lst>2 large potatoes

1 teaspoon salt

4 strips bacon

1/2 cup chopped onion

3 8-oz. cans chopped clams with broth, or

18 chowder-size (medium) hard clams, in shell

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup flour

1 quart milk

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 cup half-and-half

Shuck clams, reserving liquid, and chop fine. Strain clam liquid through cheesecloth before using (Liquid should equal 1 1/2 cups. Add water, if necessary).

Pare potatoes and cook in boiling water with salt until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Drain and cut into bite-size cubes.

In large frying pan, cook bacon until crisp. Remove from pan and chop into small pieces. Cook onion in bacon drippings until clear. Add clams, with broth, and simmer 5 minutes.

In 4-quart pan, melt butter. Stir in flour and slowly stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Reduce heat, add potatoes, clam mixture, bacon pieces, Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Add half-and-half, and heat until hot, being careful not to let mixture come to a boil. Makes 12-13 cups.

Chowder recipe from Paul’s restaurant in Riva, Md., as collected in Maryland Seafood Cookbook 2.