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.
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.
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.
Poor Cee-Bee probably had the silliest name ever. She began life as “Candy Buttons,” but the name just didn’t seem right (ya think?). It was shortened to Cee-Bee, or so we were told. This was during the long-ago citizen’s-band radio fad, so everyone who met her assumed that she was somehow involved in the trucking industry.
She wasn’t. She wasn’t purebred, either, as you can see. She had some beagle and some shepherd and who knows what in her, and really, it didn’t matter. She was The Cee.
She was six years old when she came to live with us. Her previous family loved her to bits but had to surrender her when one of them became violently allergic to fur. My mom played bridge with their mom, who kept lobbying for Cee-Bee to come live with us, very persuasively, overcoming my mom’s entrenched reluctance to take on a pet (“I have seven kids, do you think I NEED a dog?”).
Mom agreed to have Cee-Bee over, just for a while, just to see. Her bridge buddy brought Cee-Bee to our house with her dishes and leash and toys, and left in floods of tears. The door closed behind her, and there we all were.
Cee-Bee looked at us, went to a corner, and curled up, her head on her paws and the saddest expression on her face that I had ever seen on anybody. My mom forgot about her reluctance and only worried about how to make Cee-Bee happier. You couldn’t do anything else, really.
Cee-Bee did get used to us, and was happy again. She loved sunning herself in the backyard and chasing rocks. She was brilliant at finding a round rock and rolling it around so that it approximated prey, which she would promptly subdue, snarling in faux savagery. It was extremely silly, even sillier than a name like Cee-Bee. But adorable.
She hated thunderstorms and loved bologna but never outright stole food that I can recall, although maybe I’m looking back with rose-colored glasses on that one. But maybe not. Cee-Bee was a beautifully behaved dog. As my mother used to say: She lived to please. She was affectionate and serene but had just the right sense of fun to thrive in a household with seven kids.
But the day came, inevitably, when she was fourteen and very sick and suffering badly, and my mother had to make the tough decision animal lovers so often face. I was at work and she called me to tell me. I kept telling myself I wasn’t surprised, that nobody could be surprised.
But I was. Cee-Bee was the first pet I ever knew, and somehow, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to say goodbye someday. That she wouldn’t always be in the backyard basking in her special ray of sun.
Although I’d like to think she still is, somewhere.
As someone who can’t imagine life without singing and playing music, even as the stalwart amateur I am, I think one of the nicest heirlooms a person could pass along would be a musical instrument.
I am the owner of a pretty good piano, as well as a totally mid-range guitar that for some reason has a really nice sound that impresses people who own much more fabulous instruments. I hope someday that someone in the next generations of our family will like the idea of owning them after me.
But most of all, I hope they’ll be played by somebody, anybody. Silence is not golden where musical instruments are concerned. There’s a mystique around a fabled antique like the “The Messiah,” a 1716 violin made by Antonio Stradivari that is said never to have been played, and was left to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the condition that it will continue never to be played. Which seems sad, but then, I don’t really get the attraction of a gorgeous violin in a glass case.
Yesterday we struggled through a January snowfall to hear my younger daughter play in her winter violin recital. The program contained a poignant footnote. One of the other young violinists was playing a three-quarter-sized violin once owned by Tyler Clementi, a young man whose tragic death made national headlines, but who is also remembered hereabouts as a gifted violinist who had an awful lot of music left to play.
It is sad beyond belief that we can’t hear more from the former owner of the beautiful smaller-sized violin. But the instrument sounded undeniably lovely yesterday, as the snow fell quietly outside the hall, and its current owner played selections from Handel’s Sonata No. 3. There is comfort, and no small sense of wonder, at the lasting power of music to touch hearts, and endure.
Truly great ideas leave a real mark – the one that occurs when you smack yourself upside the head while wondering: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Take this family history project from my friend Helen that is simplicity itself. She calls it her “Family Rules Project.”
Many families have the sort of rules she means. They’re the commandments of everyday life passed on by the elders, often when the elders are trying to get the kids out of their hair. They cover such basics as what constitutes fair play, when to take your hat off and who gets the last chip in the bag.
The foundations of civilization, in other words.
Helen came up with a funny and often touching compilation by canvassing her extended family. She grouped the results in categories such as “Observations,” “Tips,” and “Health and Safety.”
Some examples of her clan’s ancestral wisdom:
If your mother is watching, wear a helmet.
Remove the Plumpy the Plumtree card from the Candyland game. No one likes to go back that far. (Ed. Note: True, too true.)
Cook enough + some. You never know who will stop by.
Little kids never strike out and always make it to base.
“For the love of Mike,” “For Pete’s sake,” and “Son of a gun”are acceptable alternatives to swear words in exasperating situations.
When she had a good bunch of these sayings, Helen sent them around again, including a final sheet tacked on to the end with blank spaces for everyone to write down favorite sayings that might have been forgotten.
It’s a simple and yet powerful idea, awakening shared memories and humor in a direct, creative way. It would work wonderfully in partnership with vintage family photos, but the words themselves are vivid enough to stand on their own. Helen is busy packaging her research into a book to distribute to family members. I can’t think of a nicer keepsake gift for the holidays.
What were your family’s rules to live by?
For years, I really thought I’d hallucinated this conversation, which took place when I was around ten or eleven.
My mother, frazzled from outfitting the five of us seven kids currently eligible for trick-or-treating, broke off from adjusting someone’s mask to say how sick she was of the whole thing. “And besides — we never trick or treated on Halloween. We did it on Thanksgiving.”
This remark was promptly filed in the Things Your Parents Say Just To Annoy You folder, and forgotten. In college and beyond, I would think of it sometimes when October rolled around — when I wasn’t pondering how to treat Halloween-party aftereffects. (Never mix beer and M&Ms, is what I’m saying.)
But eventually I did realize I wasn’t hallucinating my parents, and in fact, they often said interesting things. So I went looking for a rational explanation for the” trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving” memory. Nobody (but nobody) west of the Hudson had ever heard of such a custom, and even some of my (South) Brooklyn relatives looked at me funny, so I concluded it had to be specific to Mom’s section of Brooklyn — Greenpoint.
As it turns out, that’s fairly accurate. Also as it turns out, in 1998 a wonderful person named Frank Dmuchowski compiled a whole webpage about this custom on his site, Greenpoint.com! I love the Internet!
Well, on Thanksgiving morning, the children of Greenpoint would get dressed up in costumes and go from house to house yelling, “Anything f’ Thanksgiv’n?”. In return, and if they were lucky, they would be rewarded with coins, or a piece of fruit, or a piece of candy. In New York, this custom appears to go back to the 1920′s and 1930′s and perhaps earlier. Apparently in those days it was called, “Ragamuffin Day” and was practiced the day before Thanksgiving.
Mr. Dmuchowski’s page includes quote after quote of memories from former Greenpointers who went about on Thanksgiving, dressed in old clothes and asking for treats. The custom even rated a mention in the all-time classic novel of Brooklyn, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In the book, plucky heroine Francie Nolan and her brother Neely brave the November chill to go door-to-door, rewarded by a hot meal of pot roast and noodles when they get back home. (The Nolans live in Williamsburg, next door to Greenpoint, so it’s all good).
Apparently there were other pockets of “ragamuffins” outside of Brooklyn — Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents remembered it in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in parts of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and even New Jersey. But it was a very localized custom. “Not only was it neighborhood specific, but it was block specific,” as one man recalled. “If you went west of Steinway Street, the residents had you committed to a nuthouse saying, ‘Come back at Halloween, you idiot.’ “
Why Thanksgiving? Why not Valentine’s Day? Some of Mr. Dmuchowski’s correspondents believe the custom is related to the Feast of St. Martin (Nov. 11), which is observed in many eastern and western European countries with parades of costumed children who receive little gifts of cakes and sweets. Perhaps European immigrants held on to this tradition, and smushed it together with their adopted country’s feast of Thanksgiving. It began fading out after World War II, although many kids kept it up well into the 1950s.
I really mean it when I say I love the Internet. Other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’ve never seen a mention in print that this custom ever existed. So Frank Dmuchowski and his co-preservationists have saved ‘Anything f’ Thanksgiving’ from oblivion.
Note: Stay safe out there, kids. And drivers, slow DOWN! Mr. Archaeologist, himself a blogger on actuarial matters, notes that Halloween may well be our most dangerous celebration after New Year’s. Let’s all have fun and come home in one piece, OK?
Note: Posting was light last week because of a death in the extended family, which prompted this post. It isn’t exactly genealogy, I’ll admit. But it IS sentimental.
What takes you by surprise is how practiced you’ve become at this routine.
The long-distance phone call, answered with a pleasure that vanishes with the bad news. The day spent conferring with your brothers and sisters, discussing logistics. Who can make the funeral, and who can’t? Who’s carpooling with whom?
The most appropriate outfit for the funeral is always at the cleaners. Why is this? Never mind; just get down there to liberate it before they close for the day. And print out the directions to everyplace (when are you going to get a GPS, already?).
A day later, you rattle down the expressways and over the bridges to a church in an area you dimly remember from childhood visits. Or maybe you just think you remember it. There have been many morning funeral Masses in many sunny churches. (Except for your father’s, where everything seemed dark, which can’t be right, because he was buried on a broiling, bright August day.)
So many little packages of Kleenex, discreetly unearthed from purses and pockets. Nobody wants to come unprepared. (“Make sure you have lots of tissues,” the church secretary told you and one of your sisters the day before your mother’s funeral. “You may not think you’re going to cry in front of everyone, but you will.” Your sister, furious, said the secretary had no right to make assumptions about such a thing, and she stayed dry-eyed the next day. But only at church.)
People do cry. Including yourself, including at funerals where the death was expected, the illness long. There is always something that breaks your heart and your composure. Sometimes it’s just the sheer weight of all those past funerals. Singing the hymns helps, if it’s a singing kind of crowd. But Irish families, who love to sing at parties, don’t always do that sort of thing at funerals.
The ride to the cemetery always snaps you back to attention. Clinging to your spot in a long procession of cars winding through neighborhood streets and crowded parkways is a tradition in your big Northeastern family. Someone always gets lost somewhere. There was a huge problem once trying to get to Holy Cross in Flatbush, involving your father and a wrong turn or two that he never discussed afterward. Determined not to become a family story this time out, you grip the steering wheel grimly, refusing to let civilians cut in on the procession. Too bad for them.
After the cemetery, there is lunch. The restaurant is an old favorite of the aunts and uncles and cousins. You went to your first big grown-up party there. Your 13-year-old has been there, too, although she would not remember, being one at the time. The decor and the menu are unchanged. Ditto the waiters, unsmiling but fast, quiet and efficient. There is great pleasure in eating and talking with all the cousins, catching up. When you were younger, you wasted a lot of energy feeling guilty about taking pleasure in such a thing, on such a day. Now you just roll with it.
All too soon, it’s time to go. You need to beat the traffic at the bridge crossings. Everyone hugs, and the cousins ask whether you will be all right, going all the way back to Jersey. Of course you will be. It isn’t really that far. Unlike the distance from the time when the parents and the uncles and the aunts were all alive, when the parties and fights and jokes were epic, when you were one of the kids.