George Miller, Maine’s Chowder King, works a buffet line in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Caren Michel

Sometimes, after a story is published, writers get pleasant surprises. That happened Sunday Feb. 28, the day a story I wrote about clam chowder appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The story included a few paragraphs about a 1939 clam chowder cookoff at the Lafayette Hotel in Portland, and the children’s book recently written about the event by local author Anna Crowley Redding. That afternoon, I received a tweet from Maine artist Caren Michel, who said she is the granddaughter of the chef who won the contest.

Lafayette chef George Miller had pitted his creamy New England clam chowder against the tomato-based, Manhattan-style chowder of Philadelphia chef Julius Savinese (or, according to some accounts, Savineur). The judges’ verdict on the Philadelphia chowder, according to the next day’s Boston Daily Globe: “Not a bad vegetable stew.”

“I’ve always known since I was born that my grandfather was the Clam Chowder King,” Michel told me when I reached out to her.

The chowder challenge took place 82 years ago this month – the result of a proposed law that would have made it illegal in Maine to add tomatoes to clam chowder. Big news at the time, the event was attended by 200 people and broadcast over the radio. Newspapers nationwide wrote about it. (The March 4 headline in the Portland Press Herald read “Maine Clam Chowder is Winner in Contest with ‘Alien’ Tomato”).

Michel’s aunt, Dorothy Miller Lemelin of Scarborough, is Miller’s daughter – one of six children, three boys and three girls, whom Miller and his wife raised in Portland. Lemelin was 7 years old in 1939, and the cookoff, she says, was “a big event in our lives.”

“I remember they had a beauty queen stepping out of a huge clam shell,” she said.

A newsreel was made of the event, she said, and it was shown in local theaters in the days following the contest.

Lemelin says her father was confident that his New England chowder would win.

“He was kind of full of bravado,” she said. “He knew he was good, and he enjoyed (the cookoff)  thoroughly. He loved to cook, and he loved to feed people. Nothing made him happier, in fact, than when he was feeding us kids. ‘I love to see you kids eat,’ he’d say.”

Lemelin said her father always did the cooking at home, and would sometimes bring home leftover dishes from the Lafayette for the family.

George Miller’s handwritten sauerbraten recipe, which now hangs in his granddaughter’s kitchen. Photo courtesy of Caren Michel

Miller died in the 1970s, when Michel was in high school. Her mother is Miller’s oldest child. Michel, who loves to cook, says one of her prized possessions is a first edition of Marjorie Mosser’s “Good Maine Food,” a cookbook given to her grandfather on Christmas Day 1939 by more than a dozen of his co-workers, who all signed it.

“I also have his Escoffier cookbook, which I passed on to my daughter,” Michel said. “But I kind of treasure this ‘Good Maine Food’ one.”

In her kitchen hangs a framed copy of her grandfather’s handwritten sauerbraten recipe, which she presumes was a hotel recipe since it calls for 16 pounds of beef, eight onions, four lemons and 12 bay leaves. She scaled the recipe down two years ago and served the dish for Christmas dinner.

Michel doesn’t remember eating her grandfather’s clam chowder, but she still makes his beef stew. She learned from him how to make a bouquet garni.

Miller, according to news accounts, learned how to make clam chowder when he worked with Richard Brock, the chef at the Old Fort Inn in Kennebunkport. He shared the recipe with anyone who asked, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The version that appears in Redding’s children’s book, “Chowder Rules!” (Islandport Press, $17.95), was developed from a published list of ingredients, according to Redding. Lemelin emailed us Miller’s original recipe, the handwritten version of which lives with her brother, Jim Miller, a chef in Detroit. The ingredients are the same, except George Miller used half cream in his chowder, not all milk. The recipe calls for chopping the clams “medium fine,” but Lemelin remembers her father simply cutting them in half.

“He used to say, ‘If a chef can make a soup or chowder, then they’re a cook,” she said.

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