Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook
In the last Blog Post on cookbooks I shared some general thoughts on how to find volumes that will be enjoyable and useful to you. In this post we’ll look at what is certainly my favorite cookbook.
One Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1975, while walking from a movie theater to the pinball arcade on Washington Street, in what was then known as The Combat Zone in Boston, my friend and I stopped in at the Barnes and Noble. I was 21 then and enjoyed browsing in bookshops just to see what I might come up with. There was a large series of shelves near the front exhibiting the new stuff and the cover of Mitcham’s book immediately caught my eye. Jackson Lambert’s, drawing of P’town on the halfshell, its’ houses, churches and pier, with a large cod lurking behind it was the kind of whimsy I could appreciate.
I picked it up, spent ten minutes thumbing through it, reading the introduction and the recipes and knew that I’d found my guy. Mitcham drew the marginal art which remains fun and endearing in the extreme. But it was the recipes that grabbed me. His combination of French, Italian and general “American” cooking was mouth-watering, but this was my first in-depth introduction to Portuguese cuisine, for which Provincetown was well known.
I bought the book, and while we went to the arcade and spent an hour there playing pinball and various other games, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could read my new find. That evening after dinner I sat in front of the television to read it. The TV was largely ignored as I learned about Pepper Pickled Quahogs, Portugee Style Stuffed Quahogs, Moules Mariniere, Lobster Fra Diavolo and the greatest dish of all, Squid Stew. There were many more recipes, of course, with tips and thoughts on how best to treat the myriad denizens of the sea of which Mitcham was so profoundly enamored and familiar. His passion was transmitted to me as though by electric current and remains to this day.
Howard Mitcham has been described as the first of the celebrity chefs. I think that’s inaccurate. He might be better described, to borrow Hunter S. Thompson’s appellation, as the first of the gonzo chefs, Mitcham was a big fish in a little pond. His hard drinking and wild antics were legendary. He was a celebrity in Provincetown and probably in New Orleans but outside of the realm of the gastronomic cognoscenti he’s nearly unknown. While few know Mitcham now, most people who have any interest in exotic food, drink and travel do know the mighty Anthony Bourdain. It is fair to say that while lots of chefs and food aficionados want to be him, few come close. Even fewer, I think, would recognize that Howard Mitcham was the granddaddy of Bourdain and the wannabes, but Bourdain spent summers working in P’town and he knows the truth. That’s one of the reasons that I respect Tony and like his work very much, while I think the cult of personality that has taken over food on television and in print has done far more harm than good to the realm of cuisine. That’s just my opinion of course, and I know that those who enjoy the big names – past and present – like Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay, Jeff Smith and too many more to list here will disagree with me. Along with those who are known for cooking are those who are stars for eating, like Zimmerman, Guy Fieri, and Adam Richman. While all of these people have some talent or other, to compare them to Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Joyce Chen or other of the early television chefs is absurd. And there are so many more genuine greats who are mostly known through their work in print, such as James Beard, Anya von Bremzen, Jane Butel, Fredy Girardet, and Paula Wolfert. Again, there are far too many to list. The real difference is that the current crop of food heads have TV and social media to create a level of fame that the old timers could never really hope to duplicate in spite of the fact that once upon a time it was talent and knowledge that brought recognition, not eating a 3 pound kangaroo burger with ghost peppers, limburger, and a supermarket shelf of fresh vegetables and surviving it, as though the fools who do such things are greater in their achievements than Muhammed Ali, Winston Churchill and Escoffier combined!
Thank you for letting me vent.
But while this is a topic to which I will return on occasion, I digress.
The matter at hand is the delight that I (and most likely you) will take in reading and preparing recipes from this cookbook. So let’s look at it more closely.
First of all, it’s not a book for beginners. Mitcham’s recipe writing, though folksy and enjoyable is a little too loose and freewheeling for a novice cook, or one who’s more experienced but still requires clarity and precision in detail and explanation.
Secondly, with only a couple of exceptions, the entire book is seafood alone. If you’re not a fish eater forget this one.
Those warnings aside, if you have some experience or natural talent for cooking and like fish, especially shellfish, this book will bring you to a level of culinary achievement you hadn’t imagined. If you’re lucky enough to live near the coast, especially the New England coast, then you can get all the fin and shellfish that Mitcham talks about at your friendly neighborhood fishmonger. But these days in a city like Chicago you can find a very wide variety of said sea denizens of good quality, whether fresh or frozen. I like Supreme Lobster in Villa Park for quantity purchases.
The first 40 or so pages give a lively history of P’town, the fleet, the cooks and many of the characters who bedded down there while eating and drinking up a storm. The following 230 pages include fine recipes for lobster, shrimp, scallops (pronounced scawllops), oysters, mussels, clams of all sorts and the great fin fish of the North Atlantic, including, cod, haddock, swordfish, mackerel, and the much loved striped bass, known as stripers in Massachusetts. The recipe for sea serpent is without doubt the finest I have ever seen.
The only problem with Howard Mitcham’s cookbooks is the availability. All of his cookbooks appear to be out of print. The lowest price I saw on Amazon for this one was $54 with new and collectible copies running from $294-$350. That’s more than I’m willing to pay. His other two cookbooks, Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz and Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops and Snails are available at considerably less and include a lot of the same material.
I’m going to give you my version of his version of squid stew based on the recipe (or as close as he could come) to the one from the late, very much lamented, Cookie’s Tap (Ladies Invited) in Provincetown. One time in 1977, I believe it was, I was having lunch at Cookie’s. Although Mitcham had his own restaurant down the street at that time, he was having a bowl of squid stew at Cookie’s. Now that’s saying something!
I’ve made a good faith effort to track down the publisher for written permission to include the following recipe but here are some disclaimers.
- The book was originally printed by Addison-Wesley which now appears to be part of Pearson Books
- Pearson and its various subsidiaries publish educational material and nowhere could I find Howard Mitcham’s Seafood Cookbook or any non-educational books on their website.
- Mitcham’s book appears to have gone out of print in 1975.
- My recipe, though close, is not in fact Mitcham’s recipe.
- I’m not including my version here as a means of profiting from Mitcham’s work or Addison-Wesley’s copyright.
If anyone reading this is actually affiliated with some entity that holds the copyright please feel free to let me know.
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 quart Portuguese red wine
1 quart water, fish stock or half and half
1 large can tomato puree
1 small can tomato paste
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
3# box of squid, cleaned (remove the head, eyes and “beak”) and chopped into rings
2# of potatoes, peeled and diced
Salt to taste
Tabasco, enough to make it hot, don’t hold back
Saute the onions in some olive oil until they’re soft.
Add the garlic and stir it for a minute. Don’t burn it.
Add everything but the squid and potatoes cover the pot and bring it to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer for an hour or so.
Taste it, add Tabasco.
Taste it again and adjust the Tabasco and salt
Add the squid, bring it to the boil again, lower the heat and cook it for another hour, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes, boil then cook it for 5-10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. It should have body, and a heavy soup or thin stew consistency.
This stuff is the greatest. I eat it and dream of Cookie’s Tap (Ladies Invited). Perhaps you will too.
If you like fish, cooking and lively tales to go along with your recipes, you will most certainly enjoy Howard Mitcham’s Seafood Cookbook!