New cookbook investigates proud tradition of Connecticut food

For those who didn't realized that the Nutmeg State lays claim to a lot more than nutmeg - and that many dishes and styles of cooking originated here in Connecticut - the recently published "A History of Connecticut Food" by Eric D. Lehman and Amy Nawrocki will be quite an eye opener.

Even Nawrocki, a native of Connecticut (Lehman is originally from Pennsylvania) says she hadn't considered that there was Connecticut food until embarking on the exhaustive research project to learn which crops, livestock, and seafood have shaped the state's cuisine for more than four centuries.

"I grew up not thinking much about that we had a Connecticut palate or tradition," she says, noting that people who live or travel through the state associate the food with New England, not specifically Connecticut.

"The challenge for us (writing the book) and for people in Connecticut is to realize that we really do have some unique dishes developed here - and some Colonial traditions."

This is the second book co-authored by the Hamden couple, who both teach English and creative writing at University of Bridgeport. Published by The History Press, it follows "A History of Connecticut Wine."

The book includes the stories behind favorite local dishes and recipes the authors describe as "traditional, reinterpretations, and fascinating new classics" - from chicken pot pie and fried oysters to Grape-Nuts pudding and steamed oysters.

Lehman says while he was researching his book "The Insider's Guide to Connecticut," which was published in March, he was surprised by what he discovered about Connecticut food that inspired him and Nawrocki to write this book, such as the fact that "Connecticut used to be this great peach state; second to Georgia in growing peaches," he says.

In reading Connecticut history and literature, he says it was remarkable how much about food is mentioned.

"Noah Webster had a peach orchard in the backyard of his New Haven home," Lehman says. "When Mark Twain wrote about Connecticut, he would mention things like the shad roe and fried oysters."

Nawrocki says they pooled through many old cookbooks for recipes, including "American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons, published in Hartford in 1796, the first known cookbook written by an American.

"It's fascinating to see how old recipes began," she says. "Written recipes was something new - at the end of the 1700s. Before that it was oral - your mother or grandmother would teach you."

"Catharine Beecher of Hartford (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) was the Martha Stuart of her day," Lehman adds. "Her cookbook was another of the ones we looked through."

The biggest challenge, they say, was to reduce the proportions - people cooked in large quantities in Colonial times - while sticking to the original recipes as much as possible.

They also gleaned recipes from more recent community cookbooks, such as "The Lymes Heritage Cookbook."

Among the unique-to-Connecticut dishes they uncovered was the steamed cheeseburger. Its origins are uncertain, but it's believed to have been first made in Middletown in the 1920s, or earlier, at a place called Jack's Lunch. The invention of the hot-buttered lobster roll is traced back to a little fish market in Milford in 1934. Thin crust pizza, undoubtedly a New Haven creation. Oddly, Lehman points out, the popular clear broth clam chowder was invented on the coast between Old Lyme and Stonington, and yet we call it Rhode Island Clam chowder, which he says is a misnomer.

"Rhode Island clam chowder has tomatoes in it. If you go back to the old recipe books, the kind thickened by potatoes, not tomatoes, is a Connecticut dish. And we don't even care about (claiming it) - we call it Rhode Island clam chowder in recipes and menus."

Lehman and Nawrocki have righted this wrong in their cookbook with a recipe listed in the index under "C" titled "Connecticut Clear-Broth Clam Chowder."

"One of the things that doing the book made us realize was, certainly back in the early years, food had to be incredibly local. There was a sense of self deeply rooted in your home, your cow, your garden," Nawrocki says. "Somehow with modern technology and conveniences we've gotten away from that. The way it comes to me is you have to remind yourself that it isn't as obvious, your connection to food - that what you eat is part of who you are."

The authors hope that, in addition to enjoyable reading and local recipes, their book will make people feel good about Connecticut.

"Certainly as someone from Connecticut, I want to be proud of my home state and have others take pride in their home state, and realize there is a proud tradition and a history here that will enhance everybody," Nawrocki says.

"Another thing we want people to do is not just try these recipes, but start investigating these traditions at home, pay attention to this history," Lehman adds. "If you're connected with history, you're connected with yourself, and hopefully, it will give individual cooks inspiration to investigate their own family traditions."

Connecticut Clear-Broth Clam Chowder

 Though clear-broth chowder seems to have originated in New London County, it was popular all along the coast of

Connecticut. This version, similar to the one at the Seahorse Tavern in Noank, appeals to modern tastes with the additional flavoring of leeks and fresh herbs.

½–1 cup salt pork, diced

2–3 celery stalks, diced

1 large leek, white and pale green parts, diced

1 small onion, diced

3 cups clam juice—from canned clams or bottled

2 cups water

2 cups potatoes, diced

1½ cups quahog clams, chopped

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

salt

pepper

2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped

 

Cook salt pork in a large pot over medium heat, rendering fat. Remove cracklings and save. In the drippings, cook diced celery, leek, and onion until soft. Add clam juice and water, diced potatoes, clams, bay leaf, and fresh thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook until thickened, about 15 minutes. Thicken with slurry of 1 tablespoon cornstarch to 2 tablespoons water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let cool slightly; take out the bay leaf. Serve with cracklings and chopped parsley.

 Clam Cakes

 One of the most popular ways to cook clams (in the 1800s) was to use eggs and bread crumbs to make small cakes. "The Early American Cookbook” suggests the following recipe, slightly modified.

 

1 quart clams, shucked and minced

½ cup reserved clam liquor

½ cup celery, diced

1 cup cracker crumbs or bread crumbs

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon sour cream

celery salt

black pepper

fat or oil for frying

 

Drain clams and reserve liquor. If using fresh clams, chop roughly. Combine clams, liquor, celery, and breadcrumbs, allowing the crumbs to absorb the liquid. Stir in beaten egg and then add sour cream, celery salt and black pepper. If the mixture looks too wet, add more breadcrumbs; too dry, some more liquor or water. Form small cakes and fry until both sides are brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve with tartar sauce or homemade remoulade. To make clam fritters, use flour instead of breadcrumbs and drop into hot fat or lard instead of frying. By adding leftover potatoes to the clam cake recipe, a delicious clam hash results, a specialty of many old-time diners and clam shacks along the coastline, including Pat’s Kountry Kitchen in Old Saybrook.

BOOK DETAILS

"A History of Connecticut Food," 160 pages, illustrated, is $22.99 and available at local stores and online at www.historypress.net

MEET THE AUTHORS

Sat., July 14, 4 to 7 p.m.

The Griswold Inn, 47 Main St., Essex

(860) 767-0250

Thurs., Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.

R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison

(203) 245-3959

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