In Better Late Than Never News …

… Scientists have apparently isolated the exact identity of the strain of pathogen that caused the devastating potato crop failures that triggered Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1848-1852.

The story makes interesting reading, make no mistake about it. But honestly? As one of the millions who can trace ancestry to famine-era emigrants, I find it somewhat sad and unsettling, as well. After so much time, to know so specifically the tiny biological entity that caused so much misery … I don’t know why, but it’s almost like stumbling over a grave one didn’t know was there.

But it’s good to have the mystery cleared up, even if it does send a shiver down the spine. And it’s also good to know that scientists think this discovery will help them to better understand the growth and development of new, emerging pathogens.


Sentimental Sunday: A Dinner Anchor

When mothers are remembered, talk always turns to food. And usually it’s the special foods: the celebration cakes, the holiday dishes, the things eaten only if you were sick in bed.

But as a lot of mothers will tell you, the foods we think about most are the ones that help us week in and week out, year after year of figuring out what’s for dinner.

Today, therefore, I will write about Eileen’s mother’s clam sauce.

Eileen and I roomed together at Indiana University in Bloomington and have been friends ever since. Eileen visited survived my huge family back East, and her parents welcomed me warmly in Louisville. (Once they even booked me an emergency weekend appointment with their dentist when I developed a root-busting toothache, midterm.)

One visit, Eileen’s mom fed me a great clam sauce on top of spaghetti. It was the first dish I experienced where I realized I had to have the recipe. Mrs. McChesney, as I recall, was happy to share but modest about it. It really was a very simple thing, this sauce, she said.

She was right. It’s not a classic pasta alla vongole. It does not require a trip to the fishmongers, although it would not object to one. It’s a weekday sauce assembled quickly from ingredients pulled off the pantry shelves. It is incredibly adaptable. Above all, it is reliable and tastes good.

The clam sauce recipe,  as Eileen's mom wrote it out for me.

The clam sauce recipe,
as Eileen’s mom wrote it out for me.

On Mother’s Day it’s fitting to give this sauce its due in gratitude for the hundreds of weeknight dinners it has rescued. It stands by you on days when plans fall through – when you forget that the crock-pot needed to be set up, or you just can’t face peeling and chopping what you need for that clever new stir-fry (cook  time: 15 minutes; prep time: 1 hour 45).

I made it when I was single and learning to live by myself in my first apartment. Because it was a sure thing in an exciting but confusing time.

I made it for dinner when I was first married, and I made it when my kids were at their finickiest. Because it’s a great blend of comforting and flavorful and you know what, it’s easy for toddlers to pick those icky clams out all by themselves. (Builds character and fine-motor skills.)

I make it when we all struggle in after a day full of work crises and team carpools. Because the ingredients are nearly always in the house. (And anyway, we have memorized where they are in the Shop-Rite on the way home.)

I make it on rainy days at the Jersey Shore, when it’s impossible to fire up the grill. Because while grilled fresh seafood is hands-down my favorite fish dinner down the shore, Eileen’s mom’s sauce with seafood from the local markets eases the sting of missing a day at the beach.

I am starting to teach it to my kids, although they tend to wander off shortly after I throw the chopped garlic into the pan. But I think that eventually they will consider this a fine first-apartment dish, just as I did.

Several years ago I mentioned to my dear friend Eileen what a mainstay her mother’s clam sauce has been all this time, and she was glad to know that the recipe was chugging on at our house.

So thank you, Mrs. McChesney. I wish you were still around to make this for me one more time.

Linguine With Clam Sauce (4-6 servings) 

Adapted from a recipe of Betty McChesney

  • ¼ cup butter (or a combination of 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil)
  • 1 – 2  large garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2  (7-oz.) cans minced clams
  • 1½ cups bottled clam juice (approximately)
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1½ pounds linguine, cooked al dente and drained, reserving 1 cup cooking water
  • Grated fresh Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add garlic and sauté for 3 minutes. Blend in the flour. Whisk until mixture thickens.

Drain the clams, pouring the juice from the clams into a measuring cup. Add bottled clam juice as necessary until there are 2 cups of liquid. Reserve chopped clams.

Slowly add clam juice to the flour/butter mixture, stirring constantly. Add parsley, oregano, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened to a sauce consistency – it should easily coat the back of a spoon. (If your sauce is getting too thick and gloppy, you can thin it with a few tablespoons of pasta water from cooking your linguine.)

About five minutes before the sauce is done, add the reserved chopped clams and continue cooking until they are heated through.

Toss the sauce over the hot cooked pasta and serve at once, topped with grated cheese if desired.

Notes:

There is nothing much you can do to this recipe that will harm it, short of lighting it on fire. My family loves garlic, so I have often used twice the 1-2 cloves. I have also thrown in chopped shallots or spring onions. A while back I began using a half-and half mix of olive oil and butter, with no ill effects.

I have been known to forget the thyme but nobody complains. You could also add other herbs like a bit of chopped fresh basil or chives in addition to the oregano and thyme.

You obviously can use lots of different pasta shapes with this – we like rotini and bowties as well as spaghetti or linguine.

Most important, the sauce base works with lots of fish. I have added shrimp and scallops (fresh or thawed from frozen).  Once we had a huge Alaskan king crab leg left over from a seafood restaurant meal, and I threw the shredded meat into the sauce along with the clams. Big hit.

Once you get the hang of the butter + flour + liquid dance, you could really go wild and use chicken broth as your liquid and some chopped cooked chicken instead of clams. Add a bit of dried tarragon instead of oregano. Put it over steamed brown rice instead of pasta, very nice.

You get the picture. You can endlessly substitute depending upon your larder or leftovers, and this recipe will just keep loving you back.

Happy Mother’s Day.


Seen Over The Weekend

I kept stumbling over things and saying, “I really should save that link.” So I did:

• A Vietnamese cuisine blog shares a food memory from the days of the boat-people exodus that made me a bit misty-eyed … and was a poignant reminder that many of the little children who boarded those boats with their parents are all grown up now, with families of their own. (The Ravenous Couple, via The Wednesday Chef)

• To my surprise, an ordinary intersection in an ordinary town just down the road from where I grew up in suburban New Jersey was once the epicenter for Nazi propaganda in the United States. The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. explains all in a fascinating article by Tom Deignan. (NJ.com)

• James Tanner asks a very good question for all of us whose genealogy research is increasingly measured in bits and bytes: Where do your digital rights go after you go? (Genealogy’s Star)

• Finally, pure daffiness: An Anne of Cleves/Anne of Green Gables comic-strip mash-up? In the hands of Kate Beaton, it’s satiric gold, as usual.  [Dialogue samples: "I'm Anne. ... Anne with an 'e,' if you please. ... Do you think Henry and I will be BOSOM FRIENDS?"] (Hark, A Vagrant)


Another Aside: The Lost Zones

Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:

Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.

I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.

For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)

I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.


Quick Asides: Jamestown and Name-Banning

• You all have seen the story about Jamestown, yes? If not, please wait until you’ve digested breakfast to read the latest findings about how terribly desperate the winter of 1609 was for the British attempting to establish a colony there. Am I the only one who was haunted by the reconstructed image of the long-gone 14-year-old girl? And is it wrong to wonder how possible it might be to establish an identity for her among those known to have been there? I just think she ought to be more than an … artifact.

• “Not another banned baby name story,” groaned Mr. Archaeologist as I clicked on the link anyway. This one is out of New Zealand. Mr. A. is correct in remonstrating that we USians tend to be far too astounded about how the rest of the world operates, viz., ensuring orderly naming practices. We can’t get enough of it. In 2010, CNN/Mental Floss even did a roundup featuring name-banning in  Sweden, Germany, China, Japan and Denmark! But it is so satisfying to know that somewhere in the world, it is not OK to name your twins Benson and Hedges.


Wordless Wednesday: Believe it? Not? Really?

"Ripley's Believe it Or Not", October 15, 1935. Scan from Miami Daily News, Google Newspaper Archive.

“Ripley’s Believe it Or Not”, October 15, 1935.
Scan from Miami Daily News, Google Newspaper Archive.

Meet my great-uncle George. The guy with the beer, not the guy with the basketball. Naturally.

This panel ran during the height of the Ripley’s craze of the Depression years, when readers from all over the country vied to catch Mr. Robert Ripley’s attention with stories of amazing or just plain odd behavior. Ripley’s items ran in two parts. The first day was the cartoon, which as you can see was calculated to make the reader say: “Whoa! Wait, what? How can that BE????” The following day, they’d run additional details about the cartoon, which in this case read:

EXPLANATION OF YESTERDAY’S CARTOON:

DRANK 90 GLASSES OF BEER A DAY – On display in an honored position at Mutt and Jeff’s Beer Garden in Richmond Hill is the mug from which George Rudroff (Mut [sic] at the firm) drank 90 glasses of beer each day for eight solid years. Before prohibition, Mr. Rudroff tested beer in New York breweries and every day for the entire eight years he was so employed, he consumed 30 pitchers of beer, equaling 90 glasses – a total of 225,640 glasses, or 1,560 half barrels of beer – all from the same mug.

I just found this. I am still trying to get my head around it discover more about it, but for the moment I can tell you that there aren’t a whole lot of Rudroffs in Richmond Hill between 1915 and 1940, other than George (1870-1940), his wife and kids.

George’s niece Therese Rudroff Haigney (1927-2003) was my mother. Her uncle was “a character”, which in Mom’s vocabulary could be a good thing or a bad thing, but was certainly a somewhat flamboyant thing. For example, George was said to have shopped a song to Kate Smith. (She did not buy it.) I have found evidence that he wrote and copyrighted a comic play, as well.

Reviewing my notes of talks with Mom, I see she did say he was a tavern keeper. And censuses (mostly) bear this out: In 1900 and 1910 George was listed as a brewery helper and a brewer, respectively.

By the time of the New York census of 1915 he was at 61 Zeidler Avenue (present-day 55th Street) in Maspeth, Queens, where his occupation was listed as saloon keeper. The censuses of 1920, 1930 and 1940 all list him in Richmond Hill. In the first two of the Richmond Hill censuses, George was a motorman and a drug-company salesman. Well, I guess he couldn’t exactly be a tavern keeper during Prohibition.

His death certificate of 1 November 1940 said he was retired from the restaurant business. And there really was a Mutt and Jeff’s Bar and Grill on Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill, according to the Queens telephone directory for 1940. (Thanks, NYPL!)

So at least at some point, George had an occupation that required beer tasting. But did he really drink 1,560 half barrels? It was typical of Ripley’s contributors to, ah, color the facts a bit, according to this NPR story. Given what I’ve heard and discovered about him so far, I think my great-uncle George was perfectly capable of spinning a good story to land himself in Ripley’s.

I can just see my mother rolling her eyes.


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