Read an Excerpt
Delights and Prejudices
By James Beard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Executors of the Will of James A. Beard
All rights reserved.
When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt, it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes: the great razor clams, the succulent Dungeness crab, the salmon, crawfish, mussels and trout of the Oregon coast; the black bottom pie served in a famous Portland restaurant; the Welsh rabbit of our Chinese cook; the white asparagus my mother canned; and the array of good dishes prepared by the two of them in that most memorable of kitchens.
The kitchen, reasonably enough, was the scene of my first gastronomic adventure. I was on all fours. I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all. It must have marked me for life, for I have never ceased to love the hearty flavor of raw onions.
Another taste memory, my earliest, comes from the age of three. I lay abed with malaria and without much appetite, refusing all food except spoonfuls of the most superb chicken jelly that ever existed. For a time nothing counted in my life but chicken jelly. Either because it constituted my sole diet day after day or because it was magically good, chicken jelly and the flavor of perfectly prepared chicken have also remained a stimulant to my palate ever since.
This particular jelly was cooked slowly and carefully, beginning with two to three pounds of necks, gizzards, feet, heads, backbones, etc., covered with water to which an onion stuck with cloves, a piece of celery and a sprig of parsley were added. This was cooked slowly for an hour, then salted well. It was cooked again for two to three hours and strained. In this bouillon a good-sized fowl, cut into pieces, was cooked long and slowly until the meat fell from the bones. The whole was tasted, the seasoning corrected, and then it was strained and sometimes clarified. If clarified, the broth was poured through a linen napkin, then the white of an egg together with the shell was stirred in, and the broth was brought to the boiling point and strained again through a linen napkin. Finally it was cooled and then chilled. The resulting jelly had the true essence of chicken and a texture that was incredibly delightful.
I doubt if many people today want to eat chicken jelly unless they are ill or on a diet—the calorie count is low—but good chicken jelly has many uses in cooking. It gives a lift to vegetables cooked in it; it makes a fine Vichyssoise; and it provides the base for many excellent sauces. For a chaud-froid sauce it is incomparable. Nowadays I find that a more practical approach to this delicacy can be achieved as follows:
Superb Chicken Jelly
Place 5 pounds backs and necks in 3 to 4 quarts water, together with 1 onion stuck with 2 cloves, a sprig of parsley, a bit of celery and a few peppercorns. Let this cook for about 3 hours—à faible ébullition. Then salt it well to taste. (I use coarse salt—Malden or kosher.) Now add 3 to 4 pounds chicken gizzards wrapped in a piece of cheesecloth after they have been washed. Add another quart of water and let them cook for 2 hours. Remove and save the gizzards. Then if you want a sensational dinner dish, add a good—sized capon or roasting chicken and poach it in this rich broth till it is just tender and cooked through. Be very careful not to overcook it! Serve with a little of the clarified broth and either rice or some crisp sautéed potatoes. Here you have superbly flavored chicken and so simply done. All it takes is the patience to watch the broth. If you have an electric oven, leave it at a low temperature with the automatic control on and forget about it.
If my earliest love in food was chicken jelly, my earliest hate was milk. I loathed milk, cold or hot. It simply couldn't be made attractive to me as a drink. And if occasionally a zealous adult with standard notions about growing children forced me to drink a glass, I promptly became sick. It has never failed to be an effective emetic for me, and I am still revolted when I see people drinking milk with a good meal. Eventually, though, I came to accept milk when it was combined with other ingredients and turned into a modest but delectable dish, clam soup. I grew to love this soup, served with great toasted soda crackers. (For dessert we often had more of the crackers spread with butter and good bitter marmalade.) Here are three different ways of preparing it.
Razor clams are a must for this dish. You may purchase the minced clams from most good grocers, and if you care to write to Seaside, Oregon, you can get whole ones in tins. Heat 1 pint light cream and the juice from two 7-ounce cans minced clams to the boiling point. Add salt and pepper to taste, a dash of Tabasco sauce and 2 tablespoons butter. Now add the clams and just heat them through. Serve the soup at once with a dash of paprika or chopped parsley. This recipe will serve four lightly or two well.
Clam Soup II
In a blender, blend two 7-ounce cans whole razor clams in juice till the mixture is thick. Remove it to the top of a double boiler. Add 1 pint heavy cream, 2 tablespoons butter, and seasonings to taste. Heat the soup to the boiling point over hot water, and serve it with a dash of paprika.
Corn and Clam Soup
In a blender, blend two 7-ounce cans whole razor clams and 1 cup whole-kernel corn (or one 12-ounce can) and place the mixture in the top of a double boiler over hot water. Add 1 cup light cream, ½ cup milk, 2 tablespoons butter and seasonings. Heat the soup to the boiling point, add ¼cup bourbon, and serve it with a bit of chopped parsley.
While I'm on the subject of clams, I might as well produce the clam chowder recipe which my mother always prepared at the beach. It was very popular with our family and friends, and it resembles only faintly the chowders of other sections of the country.
Cut 3 to 4 thick rashers lean bacon into rather small pieces and try out in a heavy skillet. Remove the bacon to absorbent paper and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. Sauté 1 fairly large onion, coarsely chopped, in fat till it is just transparent. Add 4 smallish potatoes, peeled and diced, and enough clam broth, about 2 cups, to cover. Bring this to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are soft and almost disintegrated. Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of Tabasco sauce. Heat 1 quart light cream and add potato-onion mixture, bacon bits and lastly 1 ½ cups chopped fresh or canned razor clams. Correct the seasoning. Add ¼ cup cognac, and when clams are just heated through, serve the chowder in hot cups with a dash of chopped parsley. This same chowder may be mixed in an electric blender and served cold with chopped chives and parsley.
The ability to recall a taste sensation, which I think of as "taste memory," is a God-given talent, akin to perfect pitch, which makes your life richer if you possess it. If you aren't born with it, you can never seem to acquire it. Great wine palates must depend on taste memory for the sureness of their judgment, and a Lichine or a Schoonmaker without this memory would never be able to perform the almost overpowering task of comparing vintages and selecting wines.
Cheese tasters, tea tasters, cognac tasters—all must depend for a living on the keenness of their taste memories. Great gastronomes also have a highly developed sense memory, or they would not make such a ceremony of tasting and enjoying food. And naturally good chefs and cooks must depend upon memory when they season or when they are combining subtle flavors to create a new sauce or a new dish.
Not all taste memory is accurate. Many people think of Mom's apple pie or Grandmother's dumplings as delicacies that cannot be equaled today. These memories are associated with happy times, and to the untrained palate the pie or the dumplings seemed delicious. If the same dishes were re-created and presented to a sophisticated palate, they would probably belie their reputations. Most of the home cooking one enjoyed in his youth was not as good as one remembers it.
I think I developed an accurate taste memory early in my life. I was not sentimentally attached to the cooking of any one person at home, and we ate in restaurants a good deal. I tried to be as objective as possible about taste and was somewhat precocious in appreciating the pleasure of blending satisfying flavors. While this meant that I learned to enjoy the delights of a good meal, it also meant that I soon grew intolerant of mediocre food. More than once, I'm afraid, my candid appraisals embarrassed a hostess or friends with whom we were sharing a meal.
Both my parents had sensitive palates, my father to a lesser degree, although Mother tended to disparage his knowledge of food. In later years he looked forward to the periods when my mother was away at the beach so he could live on his own cooking. Aside from this, he had a favorite late Sunday breakfast menu, which he produced every week, save in winter, consisting of deliciously sautéed chicken served with a bacon-and-cream sauce made in the sauté pan. With this dish there were generally hot biscuits, toasted crumpets or just good toast. In winter the menu changed to sausage, smoked fish or country ham. These expressions of my father's culinary skill were memorable indeed, and whenever friends stayed with us on weekends, they used to request his breakfast.
Mother had an uncanny sense of food and the talent to show others how to prepare it. She loved to cook, eat and talk food more than almost anyone else I have known. At the turn of the century she had an international approach to food that would have been considered revolutionary in the last ten years. She was ahead of her time socially as well. When women were still subordinate and modest, Mother was forceful and fearless. She swept through a room or down the street with an air of determination and authority, and she met men on their own terms. In any social gathering men surrounded her, and on outings she was among them, clamming, fishing, berrying. She could talk their language and used profanity on occasion, though without vulgarity. Women, as could be expected, were less drawn to her, except for those who gave her the boundless devotion often felt by the weak for the strong. Her circle of friends was colossal. Her counsel was constantly sought, and her know-how saved many an occasion.
She was always ready for an adventure—prepared to pack her bag and be off on a journey (she had never been seasick, she boasted, never missed a meal at sea). And it was probably in this same spirit that she had packed up and left England years before.
She was born Elizabeth Jones in the beautiful countryside of Wiltshire and adopted by a childless aunt and uncle who lived in London.
At sixteen she was already eager to see the world and jumped at the opportunity to tour the United States as governess with a Canadian family. She sailed for America unchaperoned, met her employers and then for two years traveled throughout the States. This was in the late 1870s when transportation was not at its most comfortable, but Elizabeth loved adventure and enjoyed every minute of it.
At the end of the two years they happened to be in Portland when the family was suddenly called back to Toronto. Elizabeth decided to remain in Portland. She found work, saved her money and then went to live in New York, where she met many people in the theater and made lifelong friends. Then after a time she returned to England, thinking she might marry a young man she had known earlier. A fresh look at this candidate changed her mind, and she scurried back to America—this was in 1886—continuing to the West Coast and Portland, which was now becoming a point of focus for her. But she was far from settling down!
In Portland she took a position with a Mrs. Curtis, who had several small residential hotels on the Coast. For the next few years she worked contentedly but managed to take a leave of absence from Mrs. Curtis two or three times to visit California and tour Europe, and she also explored the Central American countries with a close friend of hers, a well-known actress of the day, at the time that de Lesseps was in Panama.
Back in Portland, Elizabeth settled down to marry a man named Brennan, whom she had known earlier, and she lived very happily with him. But he died suddenly, after they had been married only a year. The shock of this event sent Elizabeth—now Elizabeth Brennan—traveling again. She returned to England once more and then went to the Continent, where she visited in France and Italy, ate well, and made up her mind to become a successful businesswoman.
She knew attractive people everywhere and could have lived in any one of a half-dozen cities quite comfortably with a lively social life for herself, but again it was to Portland she went and in doing so committed herself to a future that was both happy and bitter.
This was in 1891. She stopped off for a time in New York to visit friends, dine out and see some theater; then she wrote to Mrs. Curtis asking for another job. She said that the European trip had refreshed her culinary lore and that this, plus her gastronomical experiences in New York, gave her a unique background. Evidently Mrs. Curtis thought so too, for Elizabeth was invited to return as manager of the Curtis Hotel in Portland, which was at 12th and Morrison Streets in those days.
Here she spent four years or so while she gradually developed the desire for a place of her own. With characteristic efficiency she began to make plans, and by 1896 she was able to buy a four-story Victorian building two blocks away from the Curtis, which she named the Gladstone.
Portland at that time was a rich city with magnificent houses and a tightly knit society composed largely of New Englanders, English and Scots. As the center of the shipping, lumber and fishing industries, it had the raw vitality that characterized large port cities of the era. Robust waterfront workers, successful madams, even more successful employees of madams (quite a few of whom eventually reached the social register), and operators of "sailors' boardinghouses" were all helping to build Portland's wealth. Meier & Frank had become established as one of the great stores on the West Coast, and a luxury-loving public enjoyed a continuous interchange with the East Coast and Europe. Good food abounded. The great houses maintained fine cooks, society matrons filled their daybooks with treasured recipes, and the ladies of Trinity Church, the plushy Episcopal house of worship in Portland, published the Web-Foot Cook Book, one of the best of all cookbooks in its genre, and today a collector's item.
Here are two of its recipes, which illustrate the simplicity of taste, charm and occasional social pretension to be found in the book:
Very Old Recipe for Custard Used in England before the Revolution by the ancestors of the family that now have possession of it.
One quart of rich milk. Boil well with whole spices, which remove when the flavor is extracted. Then add yolks of six eggs and beaten white of three. Stir until thoroughly hot (do not allow to boil or it will curdle), about five minutes will do. When nearly cold flavor with rose water. It may now be turned into custard cups and a meringue spread over when cold, and slightly browned in the oven. [This recipe has never been made public before.]
Excerpted from Delights and Prejudices by James Beard. Copyright © 1992 Executors of the Will of James A. Beard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.