Winter Survival Guide
When I was growing up, the rain never stopped. From September through June, it was rarely heavy, but never ending, with the clouds a wet wooly blanket pressing down from above. Now Seattle has days of eerie, creeping autumn fog, trying silently to warn us about climate change; we've got thunderstorms and flash floods, the kinds of downpours that, back in the day, would take a solid month (day and night) to eke out. In summertime, we've got record-breaking stretches of sunshine, glorious and terrifying; in fall and winter and spring, we see the sun too, days of glare and much colder air.
It used to be that a childhood in Seattle gave you a tolerance for a certain constant low level of depression, or at least a reduction in general expectations (a helpful thing in life). Gratification is easier when the baseline is chilly water falling through gray air; a couch and a blanket and a book, with a bowl of soup on the way, seems pretty good.
Is alphabet soup every American's first favorite? It's hard to see how it could not be—it is letters in soup. Somewhere I learned that if you ate the initials of the one you loved first, before any of the other letters in the bowl, you would have luck in this love. (It's possible I made this up.) I trawled the tomatoey broth in search of a small noodle "S" and then a "C," for Steven Crouch, the beautifully mundane name of my wished-for fourth-grade sweetheart. The spell did not work, and the love went unrequited, though once, alone in the classroom at recess, I kissed his corduroy jacket as it hung across the back of his chair.
Campbell's alphabet soup's given name, in a complete failure of marketing, is "Vegetable Soup." It has high-fructose corn syrup and MSG in it. I still eat Campbell's alphabet soup once every year or three, preferably alone, watching the rain.
Pho Bac—the original location, where Boren and Jackson and Rainier converge—is much the same on the inside as it's been for a couple decades. I ate my first bowl of pho here after returning home from college, with the friend of an ex-boyfriend; we'd become friends, too, and he was handsome and funny, and after the breakup, hanging out with him was both pleasure and pain. Because he was inextricably linked in my mind to the ex, it was like pressing on a bruise to see if it still hurt. The outside of Pho Bac, shockingly, got remodeled into the shape of a boat in 2011, with its prow pointing east. Nowadays, the Pepsi reader board menu acknowledges Pho Bac's fame ("WELCOME TO THE BEST PHO IN TOWN... MAYBE, DON'T KNOW, REALLY, WHO CARES, JUST EAT IT"), but it still has tile floors, bright lights, and brusque service. The pho is better than most: The broth is mild but tasty, and when I had dinner there last week, the round steak was tender, every bite. Christmas carols were playing, and then three carolers from the Pentecostal Missionary Church of Christ came in and sang some carols live, relatively tunefully, then collected donations for victims of the typhoon.
The best pho in town may actually be found at Monsoon (lunch and brunch only) and Ba Bar. It costs $10 to $13 to Pho Bac's $7 to $8, but it's made with good, local ingredients, and the rich, nuanced broth will knock your socks off. When Ba Bar opened, owner Eric Banh threw out whole batches of broth because they didn't meet his standards; they just weren't serving it, as I learned from the beleaguered servers when I tried to order it on two different days. Now you can get it until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on the weekends, which is a godsend.
After college, I moved to San Francisco for a summer and stayed for five years. I lived in a room the size of a shoe box, in a flat with what felt like nine other people (only three, actually). A friend had found cheap rent out in the suburbs of the Sunset district, in a run-down house shared with three guys who had a grow room in the basement. It was a used-sectional-sofa-and-omnipresent-bong-type household, but my ever-generous friend tried to take good care of the boys, and she loved to cook. One year, instead of going back to our respective hometowns, we decided to make Thanksgiving dinner.
Clearly, the first course needed to be butternut squash soup, served from a hollowed-out pumpkin. Finding a pumpkin the day before Thanksgiving was challenging; this was before the Ferry Building farmers market, before the streets of autumnal San Francisco were paved with local, organic gourds. Finally, a distant Cala supermarket yielded a Halloween leftover that was big enough and looked all right from most angles.
On Thanksgiving Day, everyone did copious bong hits, and then we commenced cooking. I disemboweled the pumpkin without mishap. But while cutting the butternut squash, I noticed that the tips of my fingers were growing puffy and taut, in some kind of tactile allergic reaction. (Ignoring the conventional wisdom about testing out anything you're going to make for company, I had never made this soup before.) I showed my roommate ("LOOK at my HANDS!") and then ignored it, which worked out fine—the finger weirdness resolved on its own, as it has every time I've made this soup since. However, I still managed to stab my thumb with a severity just shy of requiring a trip to the hospital. (Raw butternut squash is the opposite of squishy, and the household's knives were dull enough to slip, sharp enough to puncture. Also, bong hits.)
The blood pulsed out. It was very red. While not normally squeamish, I fainted. I came to on the sectional sofa, and someone, for some reason, brought me a Pepsi. My roommate bandaged my thumb, and we finished cooking, and dinner was good. After dinner, we walked down the street to the big park full of eucalyptus trees; it was warm in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, and the trees smelled terrific. That night, very late, one of the guys tried to climb into bed with me. I just shoved him back out, more sleepily annoyed than anything.
It sounds a little depraved in retrospect; at the time, it all seemed normal, the misfits and the bong hits. It felt like a family, albeit a very makeshift one. It was fun. Everyone loved the soup served out of the pumpkin.
Now I live three blocks from the Hopvine Pub on Capitol Hill. Michael Congdon makes the soup there. His 2004 cookbook is immodestly, but many would say correctly, entitled S.O.U.P.S.: Seattle's Own Undeniably Perfect Soups. His work is seasonally based, and on the more elaborate side—right now, there's Southwestern pumpkin with cheddar and walnuts, and white bean and fennel with almonds—but he doesn't overdo it, so the innate goodness of the pumpkin or the bean is not lost. The Hopvine's soups come with a couple slices of so-so bread and a foil-wrapped pat of butter, and the floors are of worn wood. The wireless password is likely to be something soup-related, even though it's called the Hopvine and they have lots of good beers. The bartender was overheard recently saying that somebody had called and said, "What kind of soups do you have on tap?" Then he laughed for quite a while.
Janice Vaughns is also famous in Seattle soup circles. She's the chef at Calamity Jane's, an old-fashionedy place located in a 1909 building in Georgetown. (Calamity Jane's motto is "Where all the girls can kick your ass"; it's also supposedly haunted by a man in a bowler hat, and before Jane's moved in, a hoarder lived there.) Vaughns makes excellent ribs and marvelous dessert (only one kind per night, so it's just right), and her soups are equal to the greatness of the rest of her food: a rarity. Clam chowder is available every day, and each day of the week has a different special soup, too. It is a shopworn thing to say, but Vaughns's soups taste like home, and if you don't add on one of her johnnycakes for $1.83, you are a damn fool.
Canlis is the fanciest restaurant in Seattle, ergo, it serves the city's fanciest soup. I thought for certain it would be lobster bisque, the kind of rote rich-people food that Canlis chef Jason Franey has been winning awards for reinventing since he came here from Eleven Madison Park in New York. But the soup at Canlis right now is potato-leek, a preternaturally creamy version—if it's possible for something to be more creamy than cream, this is it—with teeny-tiny croutons and enough black truffle to create a rising, warm, invisible cloud of dirty-good truffle smell. In the lounge, the soup costs $8. The modest portion was presented in the deep center of a bowl with a huge brim, like a flying saucer or an absurd-looking hat; the spoon had a fluted handle, like a Greek column. The whole bowl had obviously been warmed, my fingers happily discovered, for while the live piano music tinkled and the lighting was exactly right, the night outside was clear and cold, and an objectively freezing draft traveled down the lounge stairs, refrigerating my right side. There was only one table closer to the source of the arctic blast, and a man sat down at it, immediately said it was too cold, and moved. Upon inquiry, the server indicated it was a known issue with the whole restaurant, this weather system, and that they'd adjusted the heat. It never became equal to the situation. I kept my grandmother's shaggy old fur jacket on the whole time. I neglected to ask her, before she departed this world, what kind of animal it came from; the fur is coarse and black and thick, like you'd imagine a bear's would be, and it's got padded shoulders as broad as any Joan Crawford ever wore. No one looks askance at a fur coat at Canlis.
We went out to the coast to dig razor clams a few years ago. When we woke up at 5 a.m. to get going, it was still dark. It was also snowing. It was April. The sand and the air and the sky of Pacific Beach, at the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, were uniform, like static on a TV. The freezing waves smashing on the shore in the distance were a sound, not a sight. The razor-clamming season, only a few hours long on a few different days, was set to low tide, not to the human clock. We trudged out—my brother, his girlfriend, my boyfriend, and me, after a short night of sleep in a one-room cabin, the only one the Sandpiper Resort had left—and there was no one around, and it seemed to the foggy brain like some kind of prank by the fisheries department and the weather in concert, to get the city people out alone on the beach in the dark and the blowing April snow.
Then we looked back and others were coming, looking exactly like zombies in the predawn: shuffling walks, faceless, almost audibly moaning, coming from all up and down the beach, moving en masse out toward the shore.
I don't really remember all the digging—the mind blocks out certain things, in order to fool you into possibly doing them again—but we dug and dug as it gradually got light and stopped snowing and the sky cleared, and you could see that there were whole families, young and old, and barefoot people who looked like their other pastimes might be stealing things and doing meth. Due to overharvesting, razor clams have become a delicacy like geoduck, a commodity like copper wire.
Your feet can stay dry razor-clamming if you've got good boots, but your hands are destined to become sandy, frozen hooks. We didn't get our limit, but time was up, and we went back to the tiny cabin and had pan-fried clams and whiskey for breakfast, thawing ourselves out.
Back in Seattle, my boyfriend and I made razor-clam chowder using an actual seaman's chowder recipe. My boyfriend's father, now my father-in-law, was in the Coast Guard, and this had become a family recipe, adopted from a colleague. No clam chowder will ever be as good as that clam chowder, containing the excitement and drudgery and freezing and disbelief of that very early morning, composed with the sea-galley knowledge of Chief Petty Officer Reynolds. In the event that we ever revisit razor-clamming, we will surely make the chowder again, but odds are, it won't snow.
(Adjusted for Razor Clams)
6 or so razor clams (or a dozen-ish regular medium-size clams)
2 tablespoons salt pork (diced small), or a couple strips of thick-sliced bacon (cut into lardons)
1 cup diced potatoes
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped parsley
1½ cup organic whole milk
1 cup organic cream
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
To clean the razor clams: Rinse them well. Drop them in boiling water for a few seconds until the shells pop open, then quickly put them in cold water. Snip off the tough, skinny neck; slice them lengthwise; and cut out all the dark, digestive bits, leaving the white meat. (Picky people also cut out the fluffy white stomachs; almost all of the razor clam is edible, and you should definitely put the fluff in your chowder. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife website has more detailed instructions, including photos, for sticklers/the fearful.)
Dice the clam meat, reserving ½ cup of liquor (that’s the clam juice). Fry pork or bacon in a medium saucepan until crisp; remove and set aside. Saute onion in pork/bacon fat (lightly salt and pepper it, too). Add the clam liquor, ¾ cup water, and the potatoes; simmer, covered, for 15–20 minutes (adding more water if need be). Blend a couple tablespoons of the milk and the flour. Add the rest of the milk and all the cream to pot, then slowly stir in the milk/flour mixture. Add clams and most of parsley. Heat almost to a boil (do not boil!), and add salt and pepper to taste. Top with pork or bacon and a sprinkle of parsley.