Chowder Is Out!

After qraduating from Bryn Mawr’ SYLVIA WRIGHT worked in the publishing field in New York, and during World War II for the Office of War Information in this country and overseas. She is the author of many light articles.

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, is an institution — which means sophisticated people treat it tenderly and unsophisticated people consider it a bible. I should like Fannie Farmer to retire quickly. It is true that we are passing out of the era when she was the all-round cook book, but she is still around when you want a basic recipe, and is still causing trouble.

Some of her recipes should be preserved for diversion. What she thought up! Canapés in particular excited her: she put oysters in a grapefruit. She also liked mock things — Mock Almonds, Mock Crabs, and Mock Cassava Bread, which most people would be unable to assess because they have never eaten Real Cassava Bread. There are Cigarettes à la Prince Henry, which are made of puff paste and chicken forcemeat, and Lobster Boats, to which you add “sails made of rice paper and small wooden skewers, covering skewers with thin white cardboard.” There is Peanut Salad, and a soup called Nymph Aurora, Halibut in Bed (in French), and Tornadoes of Beef, which are topped with a hominy and horseradish croquette and a piece of banana. Obviously, these should not be made. They should be read about.

Being unable to exercise her imagination on the ingredients of the more sober recipes, Fannie Farmer exercised it in another way, in using as many utensils as she could. Cherry Fritters with Maraschino Sauce takes eleven different ones, not counting spoons and such. Fannie Farmer, you think — that New England institution — where else would you go for the best recipe for New England Clam Chowder? I mean Clam Chowder.

Let me tell you what happens.

Leaving out the list of ingredients, it begins: “Clean and pick over clams, using one cup cold water; drain, reserve liquor, heat to boilingpoint, and strain.” How do you pick over something with a cup of water? I didn’t know, so I put the clams in a saucepan, poured a cup of cold water over them, tossed them around a bit, and then emptied the whole business into a strainer over another saucepan. Then I saw I was going to have to use the strainer again, so I dumped the clams out of the strainer onto a chopping board. Then I heated the clam liquor to the boiling point and strained it into a third saucepan, though I don’t know why since you have to heat it again later.

This is only the beginning, and we have used three saucepans, a measuring cup, a strainer, and a tablespoon to scrape out the clams. Total: 6.

We continue: “Chop finely hard part of clams; cut pork in small pieces and try out; add onion, fry five minutes, and strain into a stewpan.” One board and a knife for all the chopping. Trying out, according to Fannie Farmer, should be done in a double boiler, which adds two utensils leaving out the cover. (Still using same tablespoon.) There is also the stewpan. The onion has to be sliced, so what with that, chopping the salt pork, separating the hard and soft parts of the clams and chopping the former, and with potatoes coming up‚ I am sorry, but you have to use another chopping board. With so many different little piles on one board, you risk losing one while you’re scraping another (same dirty knife) into the pan. And I found the hard and soft parts of the clams difficult enough to keep straight, so I put what I thought was the soft part into a little bowl. Dirty utensils to date: 13.

One thing which mystifies me about this recipe is why you strain the onion and salt pork. Evidently all Fannie Farmer wanted was the fat slightly flavored with onion, so yon throw away the delicious golden brown onion and the crisp bits of fried salt pork. I couldn’t bear to, so I put them aside in a separate dish to eat later myself. Since I was supposed to throw them away, it wouldn’t be fair to count this.

“Parboil potatoes [this is 4 cups of potatoes cut in ¾ inch cubes] five minutes in boiling water to cover; drain and put a layer in bottom of stewpan.” I had to peel the potatoes (potato peeler — 14) and cut them into ¾ inch cubes (same knife and measuring cup). Saucepan to parboil potatoes is 15 (fourth saucepan). You could use the same strainer to drain the potatoes, but if you drain them by the usual method of holding the lid a little askew and pouring the water out, you have another utensil, the lid of the pan. I had used the lid anyway to speed up the boiling. Total: 16.

Now you put a layer of potatoes in the bottom of the stewpan (still same tablespoon, somewhat gummy), add the chopped clams, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and “dredge generously with flour.” (Fannie Farmer loved dredging with flour, which is one of the troubles with her gravy.) For this, I absolutely had to have a clean spoon, since the other one had potatoes and clams on it. Total: 17.

“Add remaining potatoes, again sprinkle with salt and pepper, dredge with flour.” Pay close attention, because you didn’t just sprinkle with any old amount of salt and pepper. You used 1 tablespoon of salt and ⅛ teaspoon of pepper, which means two more spoons. Since part goes in at one time, and part later. I had to wipe the table, because the remaining salt in the tablespoon fell out when I put it down to get the flour. I don’t blame that on Fannie Farmer. No, I couldn’t use the same spoon I used for the flour, because I got mixed up and stirred with it, and now it has incipient clam chowder all over it.

“ . . . and add two and one half cups boiling water.” Same measuring cup, but I had to boil the water in something, and I had to boil it in something with a lid, because I was getting impatient. Total: 21.

“Cook ten minutes, add milk.” Here comes the measuring cup on its fourth sally (water, potatoes, water, milk). If you scald milk properly (page 27), you “heat over boiling water, covered, until milk around edge of pan has beadlike appearance.” This means another double boiler, which is three more utensils, including the cover. I suppose I could use the same bottom and the same lid of the double boiler I used for trying out the pork, if I happened to have two double boilers exactly the same size. As it happens, I do, because the bottoms of double boilers have a tendency to boil away and get thrown out. But Fannie Farmer would never have let this happen, so in all fairness the list of dirty utensils now stands at 24.

“Add soft part of clams, and butter [4 tablespoons which I recklessly measured with the salty tablespoon]; boil three minutes, and add crackers split and soaked in enough cold water to moisten.” These are “common crackers,” and I’m not quite sure what they are or why you have to split them. It would be rude of me to cavil at soaking something enough to moisten. I suppose I know what she means. But I had to use a clean knife to split the common crackers. The old one had been used for pork, onion, potatoes, and pushing things into the stewpan. Plus the bowl to soak the crackers in — 26.

I don’t count that I had to wipe off the clock on the dresser because I got butter and things on it when I turned it around to see when three minutes started.

“Reheat clam water [already in its saucepan, number 3] to boiling point, and thicken with one tablespoon butter and flour cooked together.” How do you do this? You use a fifth saucepan and another spoon. Total: 28. The stewpan has a lid, so that makes 29.

I also had to wipe off the edge of the ruler I used to measure the ¾ inch cubes of potatoes. 30.

You may be going to say that I could have boiled water in the teakettle and you don’t have to wash that every time you use it. I did, and I did because the fat from the salt pork spattered on it from my not having a lid on that double boiler. That was why I put a lid on the second one.

Thirty separate things to wash for one basic New England recipe is too institutional for me, and I don’t feel tender about it. Take Fannie Farmer away and dredge generously with flour to bury.