By Paula Marcoux • Photos By Jake Walker.
Or, How Pandemic Lockdown Brought a Long-Term Obsession to Delicious Life.
This may or may not be typical adolescent behavior, but on family vacations I missed no opportunity, once through the door of the inevitable museum gift shop or local bookstore, to browbeat my parents into buying me the most oddball cookbooks I could locate. Then, without invitation or encouragement, I would proceed to annoy all at hand, whether trapped in car, motel, or cottage, with dramatic readings of passages from “Pork Cake” and “Head Cheese” and other recipes that seemed exotic and eerily thrilling to me at 12 years old. In quieter hours, though, I wondered intensely over these messages from another world, trying to decode them, along with their accompanying illustrations of woodstoves and other inexplicable sepia-toned implements from the dim semi-industrial past.
A certain volume, Clam Shack Cookery, by Cap’n Phil Schwind, captivated me beyond others. I would guess that I nagged my mother for that one sometime in the early 70s during a Cape Cod summer. I was completely galvanized by the recipe for a crazy kind of clam pie baked with a teacup inside it and strips of old bedsheets swaddled ‘round the edges. Since our family was composed of three generations of dedicated quahoggers and chowder makers, not to mention famous pie-bakers, you’d think that a persistent small voice might have prevailed within the vacation household to produce at least a teensy beta-version of this pie… but my entreaties faced a cruel stone wall of indifference, three generations tall.
It’s that memory of unfulfilled fascination that compelled me to ferret out and snap up the little book when my sisters and I were cleaning out our parents’ house (fortuitously, I was assigned Mom’s voluminous cookbook shelves). And there on page one began the four-page story of Quahog Pie, including several controversial variations in thickening the filling. It was the unthickened version—salt pork, onion, potato, and lots of clams and their “liquor,” not really very different from my grandfather’s quahog chowder recipe— that got the teacup-and-bedsheet treatment.
The teacup was placed upside-down on the lower crust prior to filling the pie, where it would support the upper crust, preventing it from sinking below a sea of clam broth. Additionally, the author claimed that it would “siphon” and contain the broth, so that diners could later lavish it upon their plates as desired. The old bedsheets were torn up like Civil War bandages, dampened with cold water, and wrapped around the rim of the pie to help secure the weld between the upper and lower pastry, a precaution no doubt necessitated by all that clam-pressure from within. You can see the attraction.
Did I mention that I appropriated this book from the Marcoux estate shortly before a global pandemic precipitated the forming of a pod whose weekly shellfishing activities ought to have resulted in a volume entitled Clams of Many Lands? Unlike my family, the other three pod members turned out to be putty in my hands when it came to being subjects in a Quahog Pie trial. And thus it came to pass that for two COVID winters we have enjoyed many a heavenly pie, now always made in pairs, since it’s otherwise really hard to keep enough for breakfast, a shockingly good treat.
Quahog Pie aside, it has been an experience to re-examine Clam Shack Cookery, a small oaktag-bound compilation of Cape Codder columns written by an Eastham charter fisherman & shellfish constable. (My copy was locally printed in 1967, but the 1975 edition seems to still be available from an internet near you.) Cap’n Schwind jocularly doles out his wife’s recipes and cooking advice, scrambled together with old-salt tall tales and seasoned with the reflexive sexism of the period.
Yet I can’t help but appreciate the author’s true affection for the people and foods of that now-lost place and time, when the Cape was caught between centuries of swamp-yankee poverty and the newer demands of tourism. And reading it again gives me a wide-open window into my own youthful self, puzzling through the book like a dubious key to an uncertain treasure. Turns out that pie, at least, was worth the wait.
Paula Marcoux is beyond thankful for her excelsior pandemic pod, a team that in aggregate abounds in practical curiosity and good humor, aspires to ethics of equity and sustainability, and holds a shellfishing license.