Thursday, April 9, 2009
Of pitchers, chowders and culinary genealogy
My time has been divided this week between studio and kitchen.
Three of my wife's long-lost cousins and one of their good friends are visiting Cape Cod from the ranch country of Alberta, on the cold plains of western Canada. More than a century ago, a couple of men named Dorchester left New England for the West and disappeared from the family's sight. A few years ago, through the kind of accident that occasionally happens among people who care about ancestors three or four or ten great-greats ago, their descendants came to the attention of my mother-in-law, the dedicated and now 84-year-old family genealogist. Over the decades and the generations, the family business had evolved from the Methodist ministry to cowboying. And, more specifically, rodeo cowboying. The Dorchesters are the first family of chuckwagon-racing on the Canadian rodeo circuit.
So now these four women - people who measure land in 640-acre "sections" and not square footage - are on Cape Cod to get to know a bit about the lives of the Dorchesters who never strayed far from their New England roots. And I, an in-law, am cooking for them Saturday.
Yesterday I made potato salad and baked beans. Today I shucked and chopped hardshell clams, peeled potatoes and sauteed onions, combining all the ingredients into the base for clam chowder. Or, as we always called it when I was growing up on Martha's Vineyard, quahaug chowder. (Quahaug - pronounced "CO-Hog" - is the old Native American word in these parts for the hardshell clam, most often used in chowder. Those are quahaugs in the photo above, dug by Ted Fitzell from the mud off Penzance Point in Woods Hole.)
Tomorrow I'll pick up some kind of fish (maybe striped bass, if it's in the market) for the grill, as well as hot dogs and beef for hamburgers. (This is America, after all.)
We wanted our Canadian cousins to know how we Cape Codders feed ourselves. As I finished up the chowder base, I realized that I had just prepared three of the dishes my mother made most often - potato salad, baked beans and chowder. And I made them instinctively, largely by memory, much the way she did 40 or 50 years ago.
The potato salad is simple - peeled and cubed potatoes, grated carrot, a bit of chopped onion, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
The baked beans are navy pea beans, soaked and boiled, then poured into an old bean pot glazed years ago with Albany slip, with one big peeled onion, brown sugar, molasses, dry mustard, salt and water from the bean-soaking. My mother added salt pork for flavor, but I use linguica. Linguica is a Portuguese sausage, common in southeastern Massachusetts, where the large community of Portuguese Americans descends mostly from the Azores islands off Portugal. I am part of that community. One set of great-grandparents on my mother's side came from the Azores. I am linked to that part of my family only tenuously, and mostly through linguica. My own heritage, then, will flavor the meal our Canadian friends eat Saturday. The beans cook all day in a low oven, until they're soft and the flavors all blend together.
The chowder is Cape Cod soul food; at times in the history of this place it might have been the only thing people had to eat. Quahaugs are one of the most common and tastiest of wild foods here. All you need to gather them is a shellfish license, a rake, low tide and a knowledge of shellfish beds. Add relatively inexpensive whole milk or half-and-half, onions and potatoes and you have a delicious and thoroughly native seafood stew. A good chowder tastes and smells of saltwater and the clam flats. And unlike the deplorable potatoes-in-cream-sauce that passes for chowder in many local restaurants, it is not thick.
That's what I've been doing this week. Oh, and making pitchers. There's a photo of them above, as well. Now that the chowder base is cooling (I'll add milk Saturday), I can pull handles.