If there's a whelk there's a way to soup you up

HAPPY EATER

January 17, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Animals grow thick coats to protect them against the winter cold. I pry open cans of soup. My mainstays are vegetable and chicken noodle. But the other night I broke the routine, and heated up a can of conch chowder.

Selecting a can of vegetable soup is not a simple business. It seems that years ago there was one style of canned vegetable soup, the kind with the letters of the alphabet floating in it. Now there seem to be more types of vegetable soup than there are ways to say "cloudy and cold."

Campbell's has over a half-dozen kinds of vegetable soups. And that is just counting the soups that appear in the traditional red and white can. This is the can that you used to fill with water once you had dumped the condensed soup mix into a pan. It is the can that appeared on television screens as a sponsor of "Lassie," another icon of American culture.

Those were simpler times. Now buying vegetable soup involves making a choice about the kind of stock used and what floats on top.

In stock there is a choice of chicken, turkey, beef or pure vegetable. As for the floaters, there are alphabet letters or dinosaurs. And, just out in January, a new option -- pasta shells swimming in a vegetarian base.

I prefer the beef base with letters, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it is that the name brings to mind what I want from such a soup: an ancient, unchanging liquid that for centuries has given man comfort from the cold.

Similarly, when it comes to chicken noodle, I'm stodgy. I like chicken noodle, not turkey noodle or chicken soups that substitute little Os or stars for the noodles.

The other night when I went into the pantry, the solid old soups -- vegetable and chicken noodle -- were there. But, feeling daring, I reached for can of "Denzer's Carolina Conch" chowder.

On the orange label was the image of a pointed spiral shell, the kind often washed up on Atlantic coast beaches. The kind of shell I call "conch." Actually it is a shell of whelk, a marine snail that is related to the queen conch. The queen conch is a mollusk with a larger, not so twisted shell. It is found in tropical waters.

Jake Slagle told me about the fine points of difference between the whelk and conch. He is the man who makes the soup. He calls it "Carolina conch" chowder even though it uses whelk meat because that is what the native cooks on the Atlantic seaboard call the soup. Besides "Carolina conch" sounds more appealing than "whelk-meat soup."

Slagle recently sold his family's Baltimore home improvement brokering business, Slagle & Slagle, to sell his conch soup. He also writes a column, "Jake About Town," for the Baltimore Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper. During a telephone interview, he told how he first tasted conch chowder 20 years ago during a vacation in the Florida Keys. He told how he then traveled up and down the Florida coastal highways, stopping in roadhouses and sampling any conch chowder he could find. He told how he found a recipe he liked at the Strange Seafood Festival in Beaufort, N.C., and how he worked with the recipe, refining it.

And he told how the name Denzer -- which is the name of a man he met on the beach in the Caribbean -- came to him while he was in the Rotunda, searching for a book on names.

The chowder has been on the market a little over a month. (So far, Slagle said, the 15-ounce can of Denzer's chowder has made it onto the shelves of Eddie's Super Markets on Roland Avenue and Charles Street, the Village Food Center in Cross Keys, Morton's, the Old World Gourmet in the Belvedere Market, the Coffee Mill, Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood, Graul's in Hereford and Cape St. Claire, the Chesapeake Gourmet in Towson and Queenstown, Clark's in St. Michaels and Mason's in Easton.)

When I poured the conch chowder in the pan, the liquid looked like crab soup.

There were tomatoes and potatoes in it, as well as whelk meat, and, according to the label, a bit of barbecue sauce.

It had a peppery flavor. Again it reminded me of a highly spiced red crab soup. The occasional piece of whelk meat was chewy, not remarkable. What was remarkable was the pungent flavor. I polished the chowder off, using a piece of bread to soak up the last drops.

Its fiery tang took the sting out of winter. Slagle said that he wants to add more soups to his line. He didn't mention what. I'm hoping for another "conch" chowder, this one with letters of the alphabet floating in it.

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