Lending a hand

Tom Fink's clam chowder is crowd pleaser at Shriner dinner

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A key ingredient in Tom Fink’s formula for giving is in a secret recipe for clam chowder. Every year, Fink leads the volunteer kitchen crew for the Auburn Shrine Club’s annual crab feed at the Gold Country Fairgrounds. For Fink, that means overseeing the logistics of a dinner that draws nearly 400 people for the seafood, a chance to socialize and an opportunity to contribute to a list of Shriner charities that includes children’s hospitals like the one in Sacramento and financial aid for people who can’t afford eye surgery. On Saturday, Fink’s day in the Sierra Building kitchen started at 6 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. The work of gathering bread, seafood and other supplies for the feed was already complete. The task of setting tables and preparing the food was subsequently done by volunteers under Fink’s direction. For Fink, who works as a Placer County Water Agency serviceman with the raw water division, the preparing the clam chowder is always a special honor. The event has been taking place for about 50 years and for many of those years, the job of organizing the feed was taken by longtime Shriner and volunteer firefighter George Fee. Several years ago, Fee passed the torch — or in this case, a stirring paddle for the clam chowder that looks more like an oar — to Fink. The legacy also included Fee’s collection of large pots, gas burners and a special cookbook that included the secret clam chowder recipe. “I was very flattered that George even asked me,” Fink said. Many of the attendees at the annual dinner were at the first one in the 1950s and have a discerning taste for a well-made shrimp cocktail or clam chowder. The chowder Fink prepares has passed muster with some tough critics. “We had a chef come over three years ago to tell me that he had eaten clam chowder on both the west and east coasts over the past 35 years and ours was the best he had tasted,” Fink said. Not that Fink is trolling for recognition. “I don’t even expect a pat on the back,” Fink said. “You have to have the idea that you know what needs to be done. The smallest ‘thank-yous’ have the most meaning.” The chowder recipe has all the traditional New England clam chowder ingredients — potatoes, clams, celery, bacon, onions and half-and-half cream. The ingredients are all-hand-prepared in the Sierra Building’s kitchen and then cooked in three 8½-gallon pots throughout the day. Fink enlists a coterie of friends and family for the kitchen crew — a group that includes, his wife, Julia, sons William, 14, and daughter, Kearny, 10, as well as Scott Owens and Tim Sands of the Placer County District Attorney’s Office. Sands said that Fink keeps things running like clockwork through the day of preparation and through the evening of eating and socializing. It’s not that accidents don’t happen — like the time someone opened a fridge door and ended up balancing a stack of 150 shrimp cocktails that had shifted toward him, he said. Fink, a Placer High School graduate who has served as president of the Auburn Shriners, said that he has a good role model for community service — his father. Charles Fink, longtime owner of Auburn Drug Co. who has provided countless hours of volunteer work through the 49er Lions and Masonic organizations. As well as his Shrine work, Tom Fink has also volunteered as a firefighter and youth basketball coach. He has also served as chairman of Auburn’s Ducks Unlimited chapter for the past two years. His wife, Julia, points out that Tom has always been heavily involved in good works and the crab feed is a highlight of the year for the family. Gus Thomson can be reached at or comment at