Published February 24. 2013 4:00AM
Overcast. A decided chill. Light mist and rumors of miserable precipitation to come ... not much of a great meteorological recipe for weekend fun.
On the other hand, if the goal was to induce folks to try a variety of savory chowders, it was probably an ideal weather forecast. Which was good news at Olde Mistick Village Saturday, when the facility hosted the 9th Annual Cabin Fever Festival & Charity Chowder Cookoff.
Indeed, all afternoon parking spaces were prime real estate, with visitors finding spots at the neighboring Mystic Aquarium as well in lots nearby. It might have meant a long walk, but, as soon as one exited the car, an olfactory jet-stream of chowder scent was an overpoweringly seductive sensation.
In addition to ongoing events and live entertainment throughout the grounds, the main focus was on the myriad ways creative chefs could conjure chowder, ranging from staunchly traditional to cleverly interpretive - and of course the fact that all proceeds supported the Emergency Food Pantry at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center.
Twenty-six restaurants from southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island volunteered their time, efforts and chowder to the cause. Each was assigned a respective store or shop in the Village from whence to dispense their recipes.
At a side counter in RA Georgetti & Co, Evan Isted and Michelle Russell, volunteers for the food pantry, were selling tickets. Despite their efforts to help the hungry, they hadn't actually sampled any chowder.
"We'd probably feel a little guilty in context," Isted laughed.
When assured their efforts probably earned them at least a little chowder at some point, Russell said, "I'm sure we'll get to try some. It smells so good."
Behind the cash register at Fun & Easy Clothes and Accessories, where Mystic's La Luna served their chowder, Courtney LaBatte was asked whether the heady scent of the nearby cauldron was distracting from the task at hand - to sell merchandise.
"I think it's probably more distracting if you're trying to shop," she said. She said Fun & Easy employees were having fun balancing work and chowder. "We've had some good stuff," LaBatte said. "My goal is to try every other one."
Inside Taylor's Sports, people were queuing up to try samples being dispensed from a vat provided by the Restaurant at Water's Edge Resort. Bret Pangelinan, a cook at Water's Edge, was fielding compliments and disclosing ingredients.
"It's a traditional New England clam chowder, but we spice it up. We use smoked sea salt and some vinegar," he told a group of admirers.
The recipe was clearly popular. The festival had opened its doors scarcely an hour before and, already, the Water's Edge contingency had been through about half of their 20-gallon supply.
"That's the idea," Pangelinan said. "We have the chef back at the restaurant on call if we need more. And the idea is to help a good cause."
The pathways that meander between the various shops were crowded. Folks streamed through en route to the next stop, or stood in small clumps, hunched over against the wind in the most advantageous posture to spoon chowder.
New London's Ian Edmonds, with his children, Jackson and Lillian, and their cousin, Andrew Kretzshmer, enjoyed several batches and pronounced the event a success.
"We come every year," Ian Edmonds said. "It's great for the kids, it's a good cause, and it's the perfect time of year for something like this."
Only the family's dog, Lucy, sniffing a nearby waste can where discarded white paper cups had accumulated into a substantial drift, was denied any chowder. "I'm sure she'd love it," Edmonds said, "but I'm not sure what might happen later."
Near the pergola by the Village Green, Kevin and Jennifer Summers studied a hand-out ballot, distributed to all visitors pursuant to a People's Choice trophy.
"We've tried 12 chowders so far," Kevin Summers said. "Very tasty, very filling. This is a really great event."
The couple, from Long Island, were en route to Hartford to see a concert. Making a weekend out of it, they found out about the Cabin Fever Festival from a Connecticut tourist web site. "We'd definitely come back for this," Summers said.