Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer

My dad knew his way around a kitchen, but he did not cook every day. He preferred to be known for a selection of specialties, a niche he could comfortably occupy while my mom did the day-in, day-out job of cooking for the nine of us.

The dishes for which Dad was famous included:

A hearty version of Irish stew;

A snappy, spicy Manhattan clam chowder; 

Liver and onions, for which I can’t supply a positive adjective, sorry.

And when summertime rolled around, Dad was famous for his potato and macaroni salads.

Dad never made just a little salad. He always filled at least one, preferably two, cafeteria-style stainless-steel trays, which my parents happened to have on hand, along with a commercial deli-style slicing machine. We were not in the deli business; we simply had this stuff. As a kid, I assumed everybody did.

When Dad cooked, he usually took over the kitchen for the day, regarding the arrival of kids wanting lunch as an act of aggression, or at least an unreasonable intrusion. If you hung around, you might find yourself peeling potatoes. (“KP”, he called it.) Dad’s salads had no fancy secret ingredients. He thought that putting relish in macaroni salad was an abomination and that chopped hard-boiled eggs were overkill.

Still, decades after my dad died, I will occasionally hear wistful comments about “those wonderful salads your father used to make.” And they were wonderful — reserved for special occasions like Fourth of July barbecues or First Communion parties. Over the years I have tried to replicate them, without success. The true secret was in the dressing, I have come to believe, and Dad made his dressing in completely unscientific fashion, eyeballing quantities and shaking everything up in an empty Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. He’d have driven a recipe editor crazy, and having been one myself, I ought to know.

Sometimes when you give up trying on a dish, you find it anyway, or at least, you find its essence. Recently I hosted a First Communion buffet lunch at my house for 40 people. In between bouts of questioning my sanity, I found a large-scale recipe for pasta salad. It is extremely different from Dad’s, with corkscrew noodles and steamed broccoli florets and a bunch of other things he’d disdain. And yet — something about it reminded me of his macaroni salad. Maybe it was the dressing.

See what you think on the jump.

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Happy Fourth!

That is, a very happy Fourth of July, if you are in the U.S.

If not, Happy Fourth of whatever you please! I myself would easily consider a happy fourth of one of these, which were the result of a ten-pound haul of organic blueberries courtesy of our local co-op:


The blog will be watching fireworks, chilling at the beach and trying to use up more of the blueberries for a couple of days. In case you hadn’t noticed, ten pounds is a lot of blueberries.

(P.S. The Blueberry Crumb Bars do taste very good. The recipe came from Smitten Kitchen.)

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.


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.

Hello Again!

Here’s a dark secret about the blog: When I started it, I just wanted to write. The tricky part was, I needed a topic I liked to write about a lot.

Genealogy was the perfect choice. Writing has always been a way for me to work out knotty problems, and what’s knottier than your typical genealogy puzzler? Plus, if I wrote about my genealogy I wouldn’t necessarily have to talk about genealogy so much, and my family would like me better.

In the past several months I haven’t lacked for genealogy to write and think about. But a lot of it has been just … percolating. I took the genealogical research course through Boston University last fall, which was an incredible experience that gave me lots of new ways to think about research. Accordingly, I’ve been busier than ever with genealogy, for myself and for others. If you could see my desk, which I’m glad you can’t, you would see lots of torn-off bits of paper with scribbled topics, underlined a lot, with comments like “Yes! Write A Post!

Also, I noticed the family stumbling around with glazed-looking eyes, so I realized I was talking a lot about genealogy again.

So I’ve started heeding the scribbled comments, and I now have a neat and growing pile of posts. The pile of torn-off paper bits is slowly shrinking. As this has been happening, some new directions for what I do in this space have emerged.

• I’m officially giving up a links roundup. Obviously, I haven’t done one in a while. They were fun, but increasingly, the time spent compiling them felt more and more like time stolen from other things I’d enjoy doing more. Like:

• Heritage recipes. I want to write more about those. I am fascinated by the way cooking and stories about cooking reverberate in families. But I’m also fascinated by the practical challenges heritage recipes can present. For instance, one of my treasured cookbooks is The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook, with its wealth of wonderful family stories. And many of the recipes in the book are great examples of what we all face when confronted with great-grandma’s pinch-of-this, dash-of-that directions. This warms my heart, as a former food-section copy editor who checked recipes for a living. So once in a while I’ll be trying out fuzzy recipes and figuring out how to adapt them to modern cooking practices.

• Another writing challenge: Family history profiles. I’m still experimenting with ways to package the research I’ve done so that non-genealogists will honestly like to read it. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy writing properly numbered and cited essays. But one of the absorbing aspects of writing is flexing it in different ways, using different colors and textures. So there will be some of that, from my little ancestral-history collection.

• I expect to be having more fun with genealogy blogging memes, too. They are such great writing prompts. And when it boils down to it, I really like to write. Maybe that’s a retro thing to say.

But as my kids will tell you, I just have no shame that way.

The Foods We Hate, The Memories That Cling

In family-history discussions we often talk about the power beloved family recipes can exert in bringing warm, vivid memories to life.

Not long ago, I got an unexpected reminder that bad food memories also pack a punch. One of my favorite non-genealogy reads is David Lebovitz’s beguiling blog about cooking, eating and living in Paris. My epiphany there came in the comments section of a recent post on French charcuterie.

As you might imagine, one reader’s ick is another’s addiction, especially when it comes to charcuterie. So the comments inevitably turned to the question of foods people absolutely Will Not Eat, and why entire cultures sometimes put certain foods on the Will Not Eat List.

For instance, David speculated that the reason rabbits remain off-limits to many people might be that “perhaps they are associated with hard times.”

One of his readers from the U.S. chimed in to agree, saying he had once encountered an elderly neighbor who wouldn’t touch rabbit for very specific, personal reasons. For years during the Depression, this woman’s enterprising mother raised rabbits in backyard hutches, bartering them for goods and services and, of course, putting them in the stewpot nearly every day.

My mother, on the other hand, hated lentils. Lentil soup was on the menu every single Friday night of every year she spent growing up in her parents’ strictly Catholic home, in the days when all Fridays were meatless.

And my mother-in-law cannot stand spaghetti.  This is because her Great Depression was spent in a small farming community in South Dakota, where spaghetti was the only reliable entrée for weeks on end, during a particularly desperate stretch. So desperate did this stretch get, that there was actually a food drop from an airplane bearing government-surplus supplies. My mother-in-law and all the other children scrambled out to the field, excited beyond belief at what might be there.

“And what do you think they dropped?” she asked. “Spaghetti!”

The bitterness in her voice was still sharp after more than six decades.

Or consider the case of a gentleman from Rostock, Germany who finally decided to open and taste a 64-year-old can of lard he’d been saving “for emergencies” ever since he acquired it in an aid package in the devastation of postwar Germany. (The verdict? “Gritty and tasteless,” but edible.)

Bad eats can be a potent catalyst for memories, just like good eats. And the stories are just as absorbing.

Ancestral Dish: Soda Bread 101

Top of the morning to you!  Now, kindly put down that cellophane-wrapped loaf of soda bread.

Why is Irish soda bread on a supermarket shelf, anyway? It does not have a shelf life. Heck, it barely has a plate life. It tastes great – but it does not keep. Fortunately, soda bread is ridiculously easy to make, so when it gets dry and crumbly (and it will, it will), you can always freshen things up.

In Irish houses, it was the everyday, cheap bread baked and eaten daily. As Irish cooking expert Rory O’Connell tells Epicurious, it’s the epitome of a daily staple: not pretty, but easy and tasty.

Plain soda bread tends to go fast, which is a good thing, believe me.

In her charming Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, novelist Morag Prunty sums up Irish soda bread nicely: “Every woman found her own way of doing it, and the ingredients were certainly never measured except in the cook’s eye for what looked right. You might be feeling generous the odd morning, and add a handful of fruit or a spoonful of cooking fat if you had it on hand. After a while, you learned how much flour would suit you and how much buttermilk would wet it.”

There are many, many soda bread recipes out there, but the one that made the most sense to me first appeared in 2005 on the foodie site 101 Cookbooks. It’s a good solid blueprint recipe, and at this point, I can say I have a system down. But as Prunty writes, the cook is always free to use her imagination. I expect this bread to continue evolving.

The recipe’s on the jump, if you want to have a go at it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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But we digress … or do we?

Recently a genealogy email list I follow was having a lively discussion about Irish brown bread, followed by a shorter-lived digression into baseball. Which prompted a comment:

“Recipes? Baseball? What about genealogy?”

Ouch. Are recipes and baseball games incompatible with family history research? Maybe. And maybe not.

I strongly believe that traditional recipes are indeed family history, as much as birth certificates or census results. Often they’re among the few records our female ancestors leave behind. My family didn’t keep diaries, but they did keep recipes. So recipes are at least as relevant to me as, say, discussions of whether my line can be traced to a possibly mythical ancient Irish king.

Sports aren’t so much my thing, although I can’t resist vintage sportswriting, and it’s fun to imagine how my ancestors might have spent their precious leisure time. (Still, I hope they didn’t waste it at one 1909 baseball game in Troy, N.Y., described as “an exhibition so weird that fans wept.”)

Back to my original thought: Meanderings happen on discussion lists from time to time. Sometimes they actually lead to interesting research ideas. Sometimes they don’t, but this doesn’t mean the list is going to the dogs (or the bakers or baseball fans). It usually means the list has matured into the sort of place where there’s room for the occasional OT discussion, because participants trust each other to know when it’s interesting enough to start and when it’s time to stop.

I like lists like that.

P.S. I’m actually working on a brown bread post. Guess it’s only fair to warn you.