By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Anyone who was a first-time visitor to Sea Isle City’s Harborfest celebration Saturday may have been puzzled by the sight of dozens of festival-goers walking around clutching white plastic spoons in their hands.
But they soon knew why. Filling the air was a mouthwatering aroma emanating from pots of clam chowder cooked up by local restaurants.
Holding their spoons, Ann Marie Argiro, of Newtown, Pa., and her daughter, Tara Carey, of Maple Glen, Pa., stood in line along with other chowder lovers, just waiting to get a taste.
“I thought it would be fun to try,” Argiro said, noting that she and her daughter were newbies at the chowder-tasting table. “We just got here and the first thing we did was to get a spoon.”
Argiro, Carey and other festival-goers paid $5 each to savor homemade soups created by professional restaurant chefs in the fiercely competitive chowder-tasting contest that serves as a highlight of the Harborfest celebration.
“It’s hard to decide. They’re all really good. I definitely like the white chowders,” Carey said.
More than anything, Harborfest is a culinary celebration. In addition to the chowder-tasting contest, festival-goers also enjoyed a clam-eating competition that raised money for autism awareness and charities.
“Who’s liking the chowder?” Paul Aussicker, a member of the Daisy Jug Band, which performed at Harborfest, shouted to the crowd in a microphone.
The crowd responded with cheers and a collective “Yeah!”
Harborfest also pays tribute to Sea Isle’s roots as a commercial fishing town. A plaque on the wall at the city’s Welcome Center credits the fishing industry for saving the town from economic collapse, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II.
The festival was held in a parking lot along 42nd Place, across the street from where the commercial fishing and lobster boats are moored next to the city’s marina. The festival traditionally includes a blessing of the commercial fishing fleet by local clergy members.
The city’s historic Fish Alley neighborhood along the Park Road and 42nd Place waterfront serves as an enclave for longtime family-owned seafood restaurants and commercial fishing boats.
Attracting thousands of festival-goers, Harborfest is one in a series of family-oriented events sponsored by the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization to draw visitors to town during the normally slow fall and winter months – after the big summer beach crowds are gone.
“That’s the whole idea, to let people know that there are things going on in the fall,” said John Fee, the Chamber’s vice president. “Once they get across the bridge, they’ll appreciate all the different options that are here.”
Fee was one of the volunteers serving up the delicious samples of clam chowder to the festival-goers.
“They just think it’s very tasty,” he said. “They are coming along and asking for the ingredients.”
Boosting the turnout Saturday was gorgeous weather featuring partly sunny skies and temperatures flirting with the 80s. This was the third year in a row that the weather cooperated with the festival.
Previously, Harborfest was marred by three straight years of dreary weather that scared away the crowds or forced the cancellation of the event altogether.
Rain cut the festival short in 2014 and caused it to be scrapped in 2015. An abbreviated version of the event was held indoors in 2016 after the rain made another unwanted appearance and dampened the turnout.
In addition to an array of food, Harborfest features live music and vendors selling everything from clothes to jewelry to novelties. There are also kid-friendly activities such as face painting and a pop-up art bar allowing children to create their own masterpieces.
Deanna Garcia, 9, and her 6-year-old sister, Dalila, were each showing off their creativity with some bold, colorful paint strokes while their mother, Danielle Garcia, of Stroudsburg, Pa., watched with interest.
Dalila’s palette was covered with two shades of blue representing the ocean and a shark. She noted that she wanted to paint a shark after apparently seeing one on the beach in Mexico a few weeks ago during a family vacation.
“I thought it was a dolphin or a shark. I just don’t know,” she said.
Deanna, meanwhile, was busy painting a white unicorn. She mixed in a rainbow of other colors to give her painting some splash.
Asked why she was painting a unicorn, Deanna replied, “Because they’re beautiful.”
Why else, right?