Monday, August 31, 2015

Clams, clams, clams!

Facebook postings flash past one’s eyes. I didn’t catch the references, I didn’t capture the links. But one of them asked the question, Is Pacific Northwest clam chowder always made with thickeners of flour or cornstarch? Is it really supposed to have the consistency of caulking?

Some people seem to think that clam chowder is properly served only in a bread bowl, but out here on the Pacific coast, we most often use ceramic bowls, and always have. So it is really not necessary for our clam chowder to be thick and gluey. However, a quick check of recipes in popular regional cookbooks, such as A Taste of Oregon (Junior League of Eugene, 1980) and Portland’s Palette (Junior League of Portland, Oregon, 1992), does indicate that a substantial measure of flour is a common regional clam chowder ingredient in recent years.

Mo’s, a well-known Newport seafood restaurant (now with several outposts), stirs flour into their clam chowder, and it makes for a sludgy meal. On the other hand, Dooger’s, a Seaside restaurant (with two other outlets) that features clam chowder, shuns the flour.

A look backward reveals that a milkier, soupier version thickened only with potatoes was once the preferred Northwest chowder. In his autobiographical Delights and Prejudices (1964), James Beard gives a recipe from his childhood in the 1910s. The ingredients are bits of bacon, onion, potatoes (cooked until “soft and almost disintegrated”), clam broth, “light cream,” and clams, plus seasonings and a parsley garnish. This is very like what my parents prepared fifty years ago, although dad often omitted the bacon, to the dismay of the rest of the family. Beard also adds cognac, but we didn’t.

The recipe in Mary Cullen’s Cook Book (Binfords & Mort, 1938) is titled “Boston clam chowder,” and it includes salt pork or bacon, onions, potatoes, milk, water, celery, and clams; it directs one to “mash potatoes.” The same recipe is included in the successor volume, Mary Cullen’s Northwest Cook Book (1946), with an added note: “Razor clams are the favorite for this in the Northwest for they are plentiful along the Northwest beaches at low tide—if you know how to dig them.” Mary Cullen was the assumed name that the Portland Oregon Journal newspaper used for its home economics experts.
Canned clams have long been an option
Stepping back a few decades, the Monday Club Cook Book published by Astoria’s First Presbyterian Church (1899) includes a clam soup recipe with only clams, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. However, as noted in an earlier blog post, my copy of the cookbook includes an additional recipe for clam chowder. The ingredients are clams, salt pork, potatoes, onions, milk, clam juice, salt and pepper—and when serving, “add five or six soda crackers.” No flour, no cornstarch.

Postcard view of a 1960s clam digger
Beyond the issue of thick or thin consistency is the issue of the clams. There are a number of edible clams on the Oregon coast, but razor clams are a favorite and are the only clams I knew in my youth. I knew them because at various ungodly hours the whole family would rush to the shore at low tide with clam shovels and dig like fury for them. While this resulted in much general dampness (low tide seemed to occur most often during a driving rain) and sliced fingers impregnated with sea salt and sand, it also resulted in a couple of dozen clams. Sautéed clams and clam chowder were the usual results of these expeditions.

So I say, make your chowder of razor clams, and thicken that chowder with potatoes. Skip the cornstarch, omit the flour. Don’t forget the bacon (or salt pork). Celery if you like it.

It’s not the only clam chowder, just the best clam chowder.
East Coast clam fever: Helen E. Hokinson in the New Yorker, 1940s

Monday, August 24, 2015

Top of the Cosmo Revisited

I wrote earlier about the former Cosmopolitan Motor Hotel and its Top of the Cosmo restaurant, located in Portland's Lloyd Center district. The hotel recently underwent a transformation, from a shabby unit of the Red Lion chain to the hip and happening Hotel Eastlund. Television news on KGW described the Eastlund as a "swanky, new building," but in reality it's just a new tablecloth over an aging table.

But the table has good legs. And dining has returned to the top of the old Cosmo, in the form of the Altabira City Tavern. While the Altabira's menu is revved-up pub fare, the old Top of the Cosmo boasted a menu that was a sincere effort at "continental cuisine" (i.e., European dishes, and French culinary terms, accompanied by fine wines, the resulting menu intended to appeal to cosmopolites and gourmands).

Here's a menu, from about 1963, shortly after the hotel opened.

So this perhaps gives us a better idea of what Portlanders were able to experience in the way of cosmopolitan dining, fifty years ago. Some noteworthy observations:
  • The wines: there are but five American labels, all from California, all served in a full or half bottle. No wine by the glass
  • The wine colors: red, white, pink
  • Imported wines are from France, Germany, Switzerland (1), Italy, Portugal, Spain
  • Coffee: no espresso, no cappuccino, but Sanka, cafe diable, and cafe Wellington (the latter two being rum coffee drinks)
  • A couple of flaming dishes and a couple of items on a sword: hallmarks of 1960s sophistication in the style of Ernie Byfield's Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago
  • Other examples of the genre: snails, pate de foie gras, Australian lobster tails
  • The "Around the World in Seven Days" schedule is all-European save the Indian curry dish on Thursday
  • There are only a few nods to foods and preparations associated with the Pacific Northwest: Dungeness crab, smoked Astoria salmon, razor clams from Grays Harbor

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eating Your Way to San Francisco: 1915

The noted Oregon-born cookbook author and food historian James Beard (1903-1985) penned a very tasty reminiscence of being a teenager eating his way from Portland to San Francisco aboard the dining cars of Southern Pacific Company's Shasta Limited, and on the luxurious steamships of the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company.

"This train was my idea of true luxury, and two meals in the diner were heaven .... It was a treat to rise with the Siskiyous and the Coast Ranges rolling by and to breakfast on ham and eggs, sausage and eggs, or occasionally fresh mountain trout which had been taken on during one of the stops--all rather well prepared." From Delights and Prejudices (1964), 181-183

While several small ships ran directly from Portland to San Francisco, the food thereon "[a]t best was ordinary." But then, for three "wonderful years," the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company ran two fast ships between Flavel, at the mouth of the Columbia River, and San Francisco, with a connecting train from Portland. As Beard says, "this was really luxury travel." Both the train and the GNPSS ships made the trip between Portland and San Francisco in about 30 hours.* You can read more about the GNPSS in an earlier blog.
Dinner, September 4, 1915

If eating on the train was heavenly for Beard, the food on the steamships Great Northern and Northern Pacific was even more memorable. "Dungeness crab and razor clams and Columbia River salmon starred, along with the best of California fruits and vegetables and a great profusion of imported delicacies, such as foie gras and occasionally good caviar. I still remember the whole Chinook salmon of enormous proportions in a wine aspic, served with an anchovy mayonnaise ...."

It is remarkable both that a lad of thirteen was wolfing down wine aspic, good caviar, and crab and salmon, and that he remembered and savored the experience fifty years later. Fifty years past my teens, I remember that I then detested all seafood, especially crab and salmon and razor clams.

* In fact, both routes involved both rail and water transport. The GNPSS route was by train from Portland down the Columbia River to its mouth at Flavel (near Astoria), where passengers embarked on the steamship to the San Francisco waterfront. When the Southern Pacific train from Portland reached Benicia on Carquinez Strait, it was put aboard a ferry that carried it across the strait to Port Costa. The train then continued to the Oakland Mole, where passengers got off the train and took a ferry directly to San Francisco's Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Century Ago in Warrenton

Warrenton High School, 1965
Having spent many of my so-called formative years in and near the town of Warrenton, Oregon, I'm very interested in bits of history about it. The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Warrenton High School, so I have the reunion on my mind. I helped to put together the booklet of biographies of the 50-odd graduates or might-of-been-graduates of 1965, and that's been a most enlightening experience. Most of the males were impacted in some way by the Vietnam War, but we sure took a variety of paths after those high school years. Not a surprise, I know, but the individual story lines have been fascinating.

The Warrenton town I knew a half century ago was sleepy, somnolent, swampy, bleak, wet and gray. Warrenton is on the northern Oregon coast, at the mouth of the Columbia River, a few miles west of Astoria; much of the town is diked, emphasizing the general sogginess. I seem to remember that the sign at the city limits gave the population as 1,890, year after year. There was a small lumber mill, a marina with sports fishing outfitters, a small plant that made vitamins and such from fish cannery waste.

Once there were dreams. A century ago, in 1915, Warrenton thought it was on the verge of tremendous commercial and industrial growth. When I lived there, I had no idea of this past panorama of dreams and ambitions, some of which actually reached a tangible state. But forces such as World War I, the Panama Canal opening, and the explosive growth of the auto age, popped the Warrenton bubble.

The most inspiring, even romantic, manifestation of Warrenton's hopes came about in the spring of 1915, with the arrival of a brand new, fast, luxurious steamship to a new dock at Flavel in Warrenton. This was the SS Great Northern, the flagship of a new corporation, the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company. The Great Northern, with her twin sister ship, the SS Northern Pacific, inaugurated a three-times-a-week service, by train and steamship, connecting Portland and San Francisco. The 30-hour schedule was faster than the Southern Pacific Company's fastest train, the Shasta Limited, the fare undercut that of the train, and the steamships offered fine food, an orchestra for dancing, and fresh ocean air. And Warrenton was the point where passengers from Portland, Seattle, and points East, changed to the ship. The ships also carried fast freight shipments--and even personal automobiles.

The whole project was an expensive and complex set of maneuvers set in motion by railroad tycoon James J. Hill to build up traffic from his lines in the Pacific Northwest into California. Building another railroad line of several hundred miles would have been an even more expensive and time-consuming task, and creating a steamship link in 1915 had an additional appeal in its ability to trade on the national excitement over the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that year. Everyone wanted to go to the fair!

Constructing the Hill Lines dock at Flavel in Warrenton, 1914
The enterprise was short-lived, but while it lasted, Warrenton--in particular, the GNPSS docks at what was known as Flavel, on Tansy Point north of the Warrenton town center--was in a spotlight. The steamships were taken for military use during World War I, and the Northern Pacific sank, but the Great Northern returned to the West Coast in another guise. As the SS H. F. Alexander of the Admiral Line, she resumed coastal service in 1922 as the fastest and most luxurious liner connecting Seattle with California; the service lasted until the Depression scuttled it in 1936. But the Flavel dock, and the vision of Warrenton as a major port and transshipment point, was dead by 1918.

This ad appeared in the Oregonian, March 31, 1912, anticipating the Hill Terminals at Flavel

Dining a la Oregon

Dining a la Oregon: A Guide to Eating Adventures in Oregon Restaurants, Featuring Famous Recipes for Specialties of the House appears to have been the first compendium of what might be called reviews of Oregon restaurants. It was "compiled" by John A. Armstrong, a "Sunday and feature editor" for the Portland Oregonian newspaper and an honorary member of the new Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon. Dining a la Oregon* reviews some 41 Oregon restaurants.

The booklet was issued in 1959. That was the centennial year of Oregon's statehood, an anniversary that launched many projects that catered to visitors, and to Oregonians who were exploring their state. Thirty of the restaurants are in Portland; others are in Yachats, Eugene (2), Cannon Beach Junction, present-day Lincoln City (2), Salem (2), Central Point, Multnomah Falls, and Timberline Lodge. The reviews were based on a series of longer articles that appeared in the Oregonian in 1958 and 1959.
John A. Armstrong at the Benson Hotel. Wine steward Othel Lathan,
manager Oswaldo Llorens, chef Henry Hodler. Carl Vermilya photo

The restaurant review itself was a developing journalistic genre. The idea of advising travelers of good places to eat can be credited to Duncan Hines, beginning with his Adventures in Good Eating of 1935 (note the echo of this title in Armstrong's guide). But for many years, the advice was pretty well limited to advice about places that had been pre-selected as good: you got a description of the establishment and of some of its offerings, but only about its good points. Criticism and comparisons were not found here. It's a far cry from the analysis, the critical comparisons, the frank judgments and recommendations found in today's restaurant reviews. One can, however, often appreciate the absence of stridency, pedantry, picayune carping, and snide snobbery, qualities that also are to be found in today's reviews.

Here's a page from Armstrong's book. You can find another in my blog post on Henry Thiele.

* Note that the title is not Dining à la Oregon.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Podcast: Oysters All Around

I recently did an interview with urban farmer and food journalist Chris Seigel, "Oysters All Around," which can be heard on  Underground Airwaves at Underground Airwaves describes itself as a site that "collects personal food and farming stories, intimate conversations, and historical ephemera—those intangible things that regenerate a rooted food culture."

The interview was also aired on KBOO community radio's Food Show in Portland on July 15. Chris wanted stories, so there are stories about the rise and fall of horsemeat commerce, and about oysters. The oyster stories derive from two items of paper ephemera: a restaurant menu from Eastern Oregon during World War I, and an 1889 advertising trade card from Arbuckle's coffee.