The Communal Pot: Seafood and Soup among the San Juan Islands

| September 23, 2007 | 0 Comments
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Old friends and wedding parties and extended families have a way of creating memorable meals. Place them all in a gorgeous locale overflowing with fresh ingredients — say the San Juan Islands on the Puget Sound during the last weeks of summer — and even the simplest pot of soup becomes sublime.

We were gathered on the northern shore of Guemes Island. A single ferry connects locals to the mainland, and the island’s one store — Anderson’s General Store — assures shoppers that: “If we don’t have it, we’ll explain how you can get along without it.” Guemes is a place where feeling the tides is a sixth sense, where the ebb and flow of water determines the success of work and the ease of play. Instead of a farmers market, there’s a produce swap on Sunday mornings. The island’s highest speed limit is 25 mph, and even at that, you could cross it from tip to tip in 10 leisurely minutes.

Everyone who lives along the shore has a boat and a couple of crab traps. Lone buoys out on the water sport duct tape with names and phone numbers. I tried throwing out a couple of the traps to catch our dinner. Having written about the crab industry, I wasn’t expecting it to be easy. But let’s just say that if I had to catch my own food — let alone make a living — with a row boat and two heavy traps, I’d be a heck of a lot skinnier than I am now.

Fortunately for us, a neighbor across the Sound stopped by and left a deep, wide bucket filled with freshly dug clams and sea water. It was waiting quietly on the beach for us. I tried to count, but stopped at 140.

The bride’s mother chipped in tomatoes from her garden. The groom’s father offered fresh corn; the cobs and some salmon trimmings would make a rich, sweet stock. There were bottles of wine leftover from the wedding. Butter and garlic, fortunately, always magically appear in the company of food-lovers. A loaf of bread from the wedding reception was a bit stale, making it perfect for croutons, and our cabin offered up the last requirement: a big pot generous enough to hold all the food.

No crabs, unfortunately. But where nature taketh away, she always giveth in return.

Neighborly Clams with White Wedding Wine

Soak freshly-dug clams in cornmeal for a couple of hours to help them purge all their grit. Scrub and rinse them well.

Cut off the kernels from whole corn (reserve them for making creamed corn or, even better, salmon and corn chowder for lunch the next day). If you have a sharp knife, cut the corn cobs in half or quarters. If you don’t, ask one of the stronger wedding guests to break them in two. Boil them in a pot of water with any trimmings you may have: carrot, onion, celery, or just some salmon skin and belly flaps. Strain and reserve the broth.

Now the fun part: Melt some butter in a big pot. Add chopped onion and garlic and the precious last carrot; saute over a medium flame until softened. Stir in chopped tomatoes and as much of their juices as you can catch, stir a few times, and then pour in a quarter to a whole bottle of wine. Add that corn and salmon broth that you made earlier. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to meld together all the flavors and emulsify the butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the broth back to a full boil. Add the clams and cover tightly. In about 10 minutes, give the clams a good stir and check for doneness. If you have a big batch, you’ll probably need to continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes. If you like your clams on the rare side, take them out just as soon as they’ve all opened fully.

Bring the pot to the table along with all the bowls you can find in the cabin. Pass around toasted stale bread, more bottles of wine and stories of younger, greener days.

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About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.