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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Truth about Marijuana

On the eve of Oregon's foray into recreational marijuana distribution, it is interesting to take a look at this piece of paper ephemera from nearly fifty years ago.
"The Truth about Marijuana: Stepping Stone to Destruction" was issued in 1967, by the Essex County Youth and Economic Rehabilitation Commission in Newark, NewJersey. My copy? It came into my hands when I was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, probably in 1968. Apparently the pamphlet was distributed in some half-million copies in 31 states, according to a letter written by Martin Lordi of the ECYERC and published in the June1968 issue of Playboy.
The leaflet was an item of great amusement to my colleagues. This is evidenced by the added text: halitosis has been appended to the list of dire consequences of marijuana use. I hereby attest that this addition was made by a chap who is now a distinguished professor of anthropology.
If fifty years of research, debate, lawmaking, incarceration, serious study, and shrill squabbling has not brought forth the truth about marijuana, it has at least finally provoked us to attempt to deal with it as a substance to be watched and regulated, rather than criminalized and demonized. And what will come of this?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Rose for Rose and Her Sinful Deliciousness

For three decades, Rose’s Restaurant and Lounge in Portland was a clattering and rushing emporium of enormous sandwiches stuffed with corned beef, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing, of chicken soup with matzoh balls, of vats of boiled tongue, and of wooden barrels filled with Mrs. Neusihin’s pickles. Yet the standouts at Rose’s were the desserts and sweets: immense and towering cakes of many layers, cakes with icings of apricot and strawberry, monster whipped cream roll cakes, German chocolate cake, crispy Florentine cookies, flaky raspberry Napoleons, and giant cinnamon rolls and glazed doughnuts.

Rose’s was the creation of the widowed Rose Naftalin (1897-1998), who had moved to Portland in 1955 from Toledo, Ohio, to be near her children. Born in the Ukraine, Rose came as a child to the Midwest with her family. She married young, and she learned baking from a Vienna-born friend, a skill she put to work during the Depression when she and her husband purchased a neighborhood delicatessen. The deli prospered, and after her husband died, Rose put her two children through college with her baked goods.

Rose was not one to sit about with the grandkids all day in Portland. She opened Rose’s Delicatessen and Lounge in 1956 on NW 23rd Avenue in a sedate neighborhood of dignified apartment buildings and aging Queen Anne domiciles. It quickly gained a following, open every day from the early morning hours until after midnight. It was unlike any place seen before in Portland’s relatively small Jewish community; to Portlanders in general, the food at Rose’s was novel but not quite foreign, familiar but very different, something rich and generous. Portlanders ate it up.

Rose tried to retire, and she sold the restaurant in 1968; it continued strongly into the 1980s, but limped on after that and appears now to have expired in all but name. Rose then put her restless talents toward writing a cookbook. In 1975, to wide acclaim, Random House published Grandma Rose’s Book of Sinfully Delicious Cakes, Cookies, Pies, Cheese Cakes, Cake Rolls & Pastries. It was followed in 1978 by Grandma Rose’s Book of Sinfully Delicious Snacks, Nibbles, Noshes & Other Delights. The two books sold more than 400,000 copies. Barbara Durbin, food writer for the Oregonian, dubbed the author “the Rose City’s most famous Rose.”

In the aftermath of graduation from college and the fumbling about over graduate school, the Vietnam War, and general angst, I worked as a busboy and occasional host at Rose’s in the early 1970s.  It was a place where everything happened fast; we splashed gallons of chicken broth around, and put one of Mrs. Neusihin’s pickles with every sandwich. The staff was full of characters: Polly the madcap waitress, weighing about 80 pounds with her carrot-red hair; Sparkle Plenty, who stamped her name, in Old English script, on every check in green ink; the obstreperous pot cleaner who threatened to toss me in a cooking vat for whistling; Max Birnbaum and Ivan Runge, the comedy team owners after Rose retired; the host with the lovely wife, several girlfriends, and an impulse to pat a young man’s thigh. There were the distinctive regulars, like my chatty neighbor Rena P. Squirrel (did I think she was squirrely? will she come bop me on the nose tomorrow?), and the lissome young man who occasionally piled the rear seat of his 1950s convertible with gladiolas, probably from the cemetery, and who rarely spoke, but only gazed with a wistful smile into the mirror across the counter.

Rose Naftalin was a notable food figure in Portland in the 1960s and 1970s, and Rose’s rates a prominent entry in one of the city’s first restaurant guides, Doug Baker’s Guide to Portland (1965), by a columnist for the Oregon Journal newspaper. Baker describes Rose’s as “kosher” (it wasn’t), and opines the the “peak of the sandwich art at Rose’s is the Nascher’s Delight, in which there are so many ingredients that the bread never quite encompasses them.” I’m sure he means “Nosher’s Delight”; and yes, there were many, many components to that sandwich. I don’t think we’ll see its like again soon, and I’m sorry that’s the case.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Land of Princess Charlotte

Henry Thiele
If ever a king there was of the Realm of Portland Food, it was Henry Thiele. As a celebrity chef, caterer to the social elite of Portland, spokesman for food and wine, purveyor of Princess Charlotte pudding, German pancakes, and bratwurst with sweet-and-sour lentils, Henry reigned as chef supreme from his arrival in town in 1914 until his death in 1952. And his name and fame lived on; Henry Thiele’s restaurant, helmed by his widow Margaret, lasted another four decades, finally closing in 1990.

Henry Thiele was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1882; his father ran a hotel, but died in 1885. His mother died in 1898, by which time young Henry had already been exposed to winemaking and confectionary creation in Germany and Switzerland. In 1904, Henry emigrated to the United States, where he found work in hotel restaurants in New York City and San Francisco, and cooked in Nome, in Canada, and in Seattle before arriving in Portland in 1914.

Benson Hotel grill, ca. 1915
Here he was hired by the entrepreneurial Simon Benson as chef of his Hotel Benson, and here he thrived. Simon Benson aimed to make his hotel the premier society flashpoint of the city, in which endeavor he had formidable competition from the Portland and Multnomah Hotels. But the genial Thiele soon had a following, and the Benson did much catering for women’s clubs and business gatherings. His European training and experience gave him a cachet, and his dishes achieved local fame. James Beard wrote two pages of praise for Thiele’s masterful cooking in his autobiographical Delights and Prejudices. “This man had a fawning manner and great ambition, but he was a great, creative chef,” said Beard.

Benson Hotel, 1916
The menus that Thiele devised for the Benson were notable for their breadth, their fish and shellfish dishes, their desserts, and the fact that the fancy menu was almost devoid of fancy French terminology: it was in plain English.

In the early and middle 1920s, Thiele left the Benson for several restaurant adventures on his own. He opened a grill in the new Sovereign, a residence hotel; he took on the management of Simon Benson’s new Columbia Gorge Hotel near Hood River; he delivered box lunches on a fleet of motorcycles; he angled to operate the restaurant at the new lodge at Multnomah Falls; he opened a large new restaurant on SW 10th Avenue north of Morrison Street, and a coffee shop on Alder. These did not all pan out, and at one point Thiele faced bankruptcy.
Benson Hotel menu, October 23, 1916

Thiele regrouped (he had many good and wealthy friends in the business community), and in 1932 he opened Henry Thiele’s at the triangle corner of West Burnside and NW Westover Road at NW 23rd Avenue. The restaurant became a Portland institution, a family eating-place for the wealthy of Portland Heights and the elderly widows in Nob Hill apartment buildings.

Noted for its German-influenced dishes (still described in plain English), for  immense German pancakes and huge platters of deep-friend smelt, Henry Thiele’s marched on even after the death of the master chef in 1952. Thiele’s young widow, Margaret, carried on for nearly four more decades, assisted by Henry Jr. (and Henry III); Margaret re-married to August Petti, an Italian-born clothing designer who took on the role of suave and genial host.

Henry Thiele's menu, July 8, 1940

According to Beard, “Thiele’s salmon dishes were his true forte and became the feature of the Columbia Gorge Hotel, which Mr. Benson … built for him. I can remember a whole baked salmon done with cream, and fillets of salmon stuffed with a salmon mousse and then poached in a court bouillon.” Although Beard says that Thiele later “became a mass producer without any of the finesse he had brought to his original kitchens,” he brought to Portland a culinary sophistication and talent that made him an early version of the celebrity chef.
One hot summer day in the early 1970s, when I was working a split shift as a busboy at Rose’s Restaurant nearby, I went over to Henry Thiele’s and I splurged: I got three Princess Charlotte puddings, to go. The three cost me $1.05. Each was a perfect dollop of creamy pudding with toasted almonds capped with a rich red syrup. I wish I could still get one.

“And Thiele’s Princess Charlotte pudding! I have tried for years and years to duplicate it, from the first days of The Benson, but have never achieved the same quality. It was rather like a fine bavaroise, but creamier, with praline in it and a supremely good cassis sauce over it.” –James Beard, Delights and Prejudices

From Dining a la Oregon by J. A. Armstrong, 1959