The Provincetown fisherman knows more profanity in more languages than any other breed in the world, and he can cuss five minutes without saying the same word twice. But he cusses with such a beguiling grace and naivete that he can shout all night on Saturday and go to Mass on Sunday with a conscience as clean as new-washed bedsheets. – from the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, Introduction, by Howard Mitcham.
Howard Mitcham is the author of the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, first published in 1975. Anthony Bourdain discovered it, and called the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook the best seafood cookbook in the world. Old paperback copies begin at around $60.00, and hardcover copies at $200. I just noticed that Dover Publishing has reissued it. Clearly, they know a good cookbook. I suggest you click fast or drive fast to purchase this new release for $16.95 in paperback.
Mitcham was born in 1917 in Winona, Mississippi. He died in Hyannis, MA in 1996, dividing most of his life between New Orleans and Provincetown with some Greenwich Village in between. Deaf from meningitis as a teenager, Mitcham was a well-known character in all these places, but also a poet, a recorder of the sizzle in these places, and an authoritative cook. Provincetown history here is as vital as the recipes. The large and small stories site this town in history: the arrival of the Portuguese and how they changed the face of fishing in Provincetown and the smells in its kitchens, or stories of how salt cod ruled the town for years. Every square inch of space that wasn’t dock or road was covered in the wooden racks upon which the salted cod dried. When the industry ended (with refrigeration) the wood from all those racks was used to build houses in Provincetown. To this day those houses are called “salt houses,” and they are unpaintable, so soaked in salt is the wood. The paint just peels right off.
The writing is vividly noisy, smelly, crispy, honest and real:
In the 1840’s and ’50’s Provincetown was the wealthiest town per capita in New England, and mackerel was one of the cornerstones of this prosperity. In those pre-refrigeration days salt mackerel was the most widely eaten seafood product in America, one of our principal sources of protein, and every small grocery store had its barrel of salt mackerel standing alongside the cracker barrel (and casting off a reek that you could smell all the way out in the street. Those old time grocery stores must have been fragrant things with their medleys of smells: whale oil, mackerel, salt meat, cheeses, hard tack, coffee, kerosene, leather, rope, peppermint, horehound candy and so on. Modern packaging and the supermarket have really murdered the nice smells which gave glamour, mystery, and seductiveness to the old time grocery store.
Like the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, Mitcham’s other cookbooks, Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz, A New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, (1978) and Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops, and Snails: A Cookbook and a Memoir, (1990), all cover the wild streets, bars, wharfs, clam flats, oyster beds, draggers and salty deliciousness that happened in those two cities, or the kind of mood that prevailed in places like Cookie’s Tap in Provincetown:
The Lord took away a great bon vivant and gourmet back in 1946 when he laid a heart attack on Friday Cook in the prime of his life, only forty-eight years old. His grandfather had come here as a cabin boy and cook on Captain Kibby Cook’s whaling vessel, and the family adopted the name of both of the vocation and the benefactor. Friday ran one of the most amazing bar and restaurants in America. All the fishermen hung out at Cookie’s and they would bring in their “trash” for which there was no ready market: crabs, giant lobster, squids, butterfish, catfish, wolffish, pollocks, blinkers, conches, tinkers, quahaugs, and Lord knows what else. Friday and his wife, Clara (and later sons Wilbur and Joe) would cook this stuff in all sorts of tantalizing ways, and they’d pile it on the counter. Anybody who didn’t look TOO greedy and hungry was invited to help himself. I remember that in my first summer here I didn’t spend a nickel on food. I spent my dimes on beer at Cookies, and the food was on the house. The late John Gaspie, the clamdigging bon vivant, wold sit with me all afternoon, spinning fabulous yarns as we devoured galvanized tinkers and squid stew, and sipped the foamy. Halcyon days they were.
Pay attention to that list of “trash fish.” I’m not just writing about the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook because we will never see this kind of color in our culture again, for what that’s worth; I hope Mitcham’s text and recipes make people think about how much the fishing industry has changed – or not – since 1975. Mitcham was already seeing changes, poignant foreshadowing of today’s crisis. He writes in 1975:
Today’s fishing is composed of diesel-powered draggers which pull their bag-like otter trawls across the bottom of the sea. There are about thirty of these vessels in the Provincetown fleet, and when the summer tourists go home the fleet becomes the economic backbone of the town. But economic and ecologic problems have become so acute that no one can say for certain whether the fleet will grow or become extinct; as the catches become smaller and fuel and operating costs rise to astronomic heights, it becomes pretty obvious that the government is going to have to help; it will have to subsidize the fishermen in the same way that it now supports the wheat and cotton farmers. But as long as the codfish and flounders are with us, things will turn out right.
Not so much.
Mitcham never imagined we could fish the oceans clean of cod, but he already foresaw haddock’s demise:
One of the saddest chapter of our fouled up modern ecology is the decline and fall of the noble haddock. A few years ago it was the topselling fish in America, and a money maker for Provincetown’s fishermen. It is one of the highest gastronomic treats for gourmets. But its numbers have gone into such a tailspin in recent years that biologists are afraid it will soon be as extinct as the dodo, great auk, and passenger pigeons. Overfishing has done it. Foreign factory ships and trawlers and our own beam trawlers (we can’t blame the Russians for everything.) have swept the George’s Banks so clean that there are not even enough fish left there to spawn, as they did in the past. Man’s inhumanity to man is equaled by his inhumanity to nature.
Chapter 1 from The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook is entitled “The Shellfish.” It covers quahaugs, steamer clams, sea clams, mussels, oysters, scallops, snails, and periwinkles. I’ll be selecting a couple of recipes from each section. Snails and periwinkles will be interesting. I’m beginning with a very simple recipe, a kind of beginners slope for Mitcham. (Some of Mitcham’s recipes are three-ingredient-simple, and some have twenty-five ingredients, but they always work. I have never yet seen a superfluous ingredient or step in a Mitcham recipe.) This is for a simple broiled in the half-shell morsel of shellfish topped simply with a little Tabasco and bacon. I used “little necks,” sometimes called “top necks” in the grocery store, but I’m including Mitcham’s handy chart to keep things straight.
The most important point to remember is that a quahaug is not officially a clam. A quahaug is Venus mercenaria; in New England clams are the soft-shell ones, Mya arenaria, that end up steamed, fried, or in chowder. (Although there is a quahaug chowder, too.)
Mitcham has a bunch of interesting quahaug recipes, and I will write a long, dinner version next week, but this recipe is a perfect composition: briny + heat + sweet, salty.
Quahaugs are easy to source (on the coast) and a trustworthy seafood. I purchased these at Whole Foods; they were wild, dug in Wellfleet the day before I purchased them, a wild, local seafood responsibly captured with loads of flavor. But here’s Mitcham on the Provincetown history of the quahaug, a really good example of how resilient fisheries can be. To a point:
If the Indians hadn’t taught the Pilgrims how to dig quahaugs they would all probably have starved to death that first hard winter in Plymouth. Ever since that time, especially during depressions, a lot of other folks would have gone hungry except for a bucket of steamed “hogs.” Like the shmoos, they were a self-perpetuating bounty. But only up to a certain point. During the depression of the early ’30’s, when money was so very very scarce, a barrel (three bushels) of quahaugs would fetch two dollars, so the desperate commercial clam muckers raked Provincetown mudflats as clean as a hound’s tooth. And to cap it off some sort of epidemic killed off most of the eelgrass which produces the microscopic diatoms on which quahaugs feed. This double disaster made quahaugs so scarce that many people thought they were extinct. But around 1940 the eelgrass began to make a comeback, and so did the quahaugs, and so did the dollar. The current wholesale price of a bushel of littlenecks is $34 ($102 per barrel), and they must be purchased from commercial clam farmers or fishmarkets. This is one of the sharpest comebacks of almost any commodity on the market except call girls.
We shared a dozen of these for a light lunch – absolutely nothing else – and felt as if we had just dined on something very special, and as if we had been incredibly – surprisingly – well-nourished.
2 dozen littlenecks or cherrystone quahaugs
6 slices bacon
Many people prefer this simple broiled quahaug dish to the more elaborate clams casino.
Open the quahaugs, over a pan to catch the juices. Cook the bacon in a skillet unilt it is 3/4 done; cut the strips in 1-inch pieces. Place rock salt on 2 sizzle platters or pie pans and place the clams on the halfshell on top of the rock salt. Spoon a bit of the liquid (strained of grit) over the clams. Add 1 drop Tabasco to each clam. Lay a piece of the bacon on top of each clam. Place them under the broiler flame until the bacon is browned. Serve at once.
Notes: I used “Ribs Within” nitrate-free, chemical-free bacon made from pigs raised on Amish farms. Just try some.
As you can see, be careful to only cook the bacon 3/4 in advance or else it will get a little too crispy under the broiler. To open these littlenecks I actually steamed them just a tiny bit to get the shell just starting to open. I’m just a whuss with a clam knife.
p.s. Thanks, David Calvo, for providing this little gem of pure bacon joy: baby’s first bacon