Seasons by the Sea: Local Spin on T-Day Classics

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish
Craig Claiborne's cranberry relish recipe continues to get a boost from a long held misconception that it was the recipe of a public radio personality's mother. Laura Donnelly

In the late 1970s and early ’80s I worked for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. Every year around this time, our beloved “All Things Considered” host Susan Stamberg would share her mother’s recipe, Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, with her listeners. “Mama” Stamberg got credit for this wildly popular concoction until the true inventor, Craig Claiborne, gently reminded Susan that it was his recipe from a 1959 New York Times column. In 1993, Mr. Claiborne told Mrs. Stamberg: “I am simply delighted. We have gotten more mileage, you and I, out of that recipe than almost anything I’ve printed.”

It is a somewhat peculiar recipe, and the color is disconcerting. It is a vibrant Pepto-Bismol pink, but it is delicious and I make it every year to go with turkey, and later, roast beef sandwiches. I like to imagine Mr. Claiborne foraging for cranberries in the bogs of Napeague long ago.

What are some other old local recipes suited for Thanksgiving Day? How do eel, coot, and samp sound? Ground nuts? Montauk Starve to Death? These are some of the treasures I found in a first edition copy of the “Ladies Village Improvement Society 60th Anniversary Cookbook,” published in 1955. The names are as familiar as today: Rattray, Tillinghast, Wainwright, Dominy, Lester, Hand, Bennett, Edwards, Gay, and more.

Hector Bonomi of the Devon Yacht Club shared his recipe for vichyssoise, but his “clamssoise” was a closely guarded secret. This got me to thinking: A completely pureed clam chowder could be a marvelous first course. There are plenty more clam chowder recipes and they all include salt pork, not bacon. We should bring back salt pork as a chowder ingredient! There is nothing better than rendered “cracklins” on top of a bowl of clam chowder.

“Torup” were the big turtles found in local ponds and turned into stew after being “fattened on sour milk in the swill barrel.” With a little touch of xenophobia, the cookbook proclaims “big, fat, salty, fresh Gardiner’s Bay oysters have it all over the poor little greenish things that are considered such a delicacy in France and England.” Meow. The clam pies of Mrs. Conrad, Bennett, Russell, and Edwards duke it out on page 14, and they all sound delicious.

There is a chapter titled “For Men Only,” and since that isn’t enough, the next chapter is called “Hearty Fare Recommended by Other Men.” These chapters include an interchangeable recipe for breast of coot or venison (“shot by Dudley Roberts Jr.”), which involves soaking the coot in salt water, then frying in butter. I’ll pass on that one. 

Root beer was homemade in those days with a gathering of sassafras root, wintergreen, wild cherry, hops, and ginger root, then fermented with “turnpikes,” as yeast cakes were called. It is also noted that East Hampton was mostly a dry town, while Sag Harbor always voted “wet” at town meetings. No wonder I live in Sag Harbor.

Interestingly, there isn’t a single recipe for bluefish in the book, whereas there are four in the “L.V.I.S. Centennial Cookbook,” published in 1994. There are plenty of clam, oyster, scallop, lobster, flounder, potato, cauliflower, duck, Montauk grape, cranberry, and beach plum recipes, so this was curious. I’m guessing the ladies just didn’t much like bluefish or no one was enjoying it at the time.

“Palette to Palate,” Guild Hall’s local artists’ cookbook published in 1978, has some interesting recipes as well. At least the artist Ralph Carpentier talks about how delicious freshly caught, filleted, and fried bluefish can be. Leif Hope, on the other hand, is quite the scamp, offering his recipe for a peanut butter sandwich. It includes raw onion, bacon, mayonnaise, longhorn cheese, blackberry jelly, mustard, and . . . cinnamon.

One of the recipes I am going to try this Thanksgiving comes from a suggested side dish to Chicken a la Mowry, from Mrs. Stuyvesant Wainwright in the 60th-anniversary cookbook. She recommends a “spinach ring filled with small beets.” I got to thinking how pretty this could be on the table, green and red, perhaps even better suited for a Christmas dinner. No recipe was given for this, and I feared it may have involved gelatin, but I found a pretty tasty recipe online and filled mine with roasted beets in a shallot Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

I am also going to make the mashed turnip and potatoes, layered with fried onions and topped with crushed Corn Flakes, provided by Mrs. Samuel Cline. Besides Mama Stamberg’s, a.k.a. Craig Claiborne’s, cranberry relish, I’m going to make the simple sounding recipe from the same book for cranberry orange relish, no more than one pound of cranberries, two cups sugar, and one orange ground together and chilled.

It is comforting at holiday times to enjoy foods that are not just rich, but rich with history, lore, and legend. Have a happy and historical Thanksgiving, everyone! And let us give an extra thanks for those who recorded these local recipes so that we can replicate them hundreds of years after our ancestors.

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In the L.V.I.S. 60th anniversary cookbook, Mrs. Stuyvesant Wainwright suggests accompanying her Chicken a la Mowry with a “spinach ring filled with small beets.” Laura Donnelly