A Clam Puff Disaster at the Department of Salad
We thought we needed a break from salad. Lesson learned.
IF YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE who gets mad when it takes forever to “get to the recipe,” you’re going to hate today’s newsletter, for which I spent an entire week trying to perfect clam puffs. I screwed them up over and over. So I’ll tell you right now I don’t have a recipe for you.
This is a first for me, and I’m absolutely beside myself. I’m not making excuses, exactly. I’m apologizing.
HOWEVER! I blame my failure (to a certain extent) on the fact that I accidentally pay too much attention to food in movies and on television, and then try to replicate it. Like the cozy, perfect bird in a nest Olympia Dukakis makes for Cher, before she tells her to snap out of it, in Moonstruck. (I’ve made this dish many times. The movie version, below, is much prettier but mine is always delicious.)
Having an obsessive personality (who else would start a newsletter about salad?), I often photograph or videotape food-related scenes this way for no real reason at all. I am a collector of sorts.
Sometimes I collect this food because it’s beautiful and poetic and symbolic. Other times it’s because I can’t believe no one showed the actors how to cut a tomato or use a box grater, as in this scene below from Only When I Laugh, the 1981 movie adaptation—starring Marsha Mason, Kristy McNichol and James Coco—of Neil Simon’s 1970 stage comedy-drama The Gingerbread Lady. Kristy McNichol was always great, but she can’t grate. And as you’ll see from the Instagram post below, which I recorded with my phone while streaming the movie, I’m pretty sure she was taking banjo lessons at the time of filming.
I have a lot of these photos and videos, some related to poor technique, others related to how it can sometimes feel to cook for picky people, even if it’s just peanut butter sandwiches, as in the Tom Cruise version of War of the Worlds.
Others I have collected just because they are iconic and thrill me.
And, obviously, I have more than a couple that are related to salad, this one from When Harry Met Sally among them.
Sometimes I view these artifacts in private; sometimes I share them with all you other weirdos on social media. But I didn’t realize just how often I do this until recently, when I tried to clear out the millions of videos and photos on my phone.
Among many others, I found my 2016 photo of the abandoned sandwich Michael Corleone comes upon in the turning-point hospital scene in The Godfather, a movie full of significant food (the cannoli, the oranges, the veal); it may as well be a living character, situated next to a still steaming cup of coffee, signifying that his father has been abandoned, isn’t safe.
I also have a photo of the dinner scene, in which Michael tells Kay she can’t come with him to the hospital, for lame reasons she doesn’t believe. But I took this photo as much for her hair as for the food, which is nondescript in comparison.
It’s not just food-related scenes in movies. It’s food-related scenes in real life that I can’t get enough of, including my own, like this photo of me and my goddaughter (and cousin) pretending to eat giant corn back in 2011, when I was a damn wreck and she was just a little kid. We’ve both grown up so much since then. (She’s a college sophomore now, living in Jordan this semester and learning Arabic.)
I will never throw away my photos from the very good summer fish fries (always with an incredible dessert table) I attended at the Methodist church down the road from my old place in Ashe County, NC, where kind people welcomed me even though I probably seemed odd to them, a grownup woman living alone in a barn. They remind me of how my isolated life out there changed me, in such good ways.
And I need to keep this photo of my cousin Martha’s recipe box, just because I do.
I failed at clam puffs and I failed at my phone purge. Not only did I not delete these food videos and photos or literally thousands of others, but I also started wishing I’d taken more of them, because to me they serve the same purpose that diaries or journals (which I’ve never kept) do for other people.
In its defense, this makeshift diary is not what got me into trouble this week. It was my longtime love of one of the last good Woody Allen movies, Hannah and Her Sisters (fight me on this all you want). There’s a scene that has stuck with me all these years, of a party at which hors d’oeuvres are being passed.
You don’t have to watch the whole thing, but just know that it planted the idea in my mind that hors d’oeuvres should be a lifestyle and that one day I just had to make clam puffs. Unfortunately for me and for this newsletter, Dianne Wiest (whom I adore) didn’t make clam puffs, she made shrimp puffs! (There were no clam puffs at all.)
It took until I had baked batch after batch of awful, tasteless, gloppy little toasts this entire week for me to realize I’d chosen the wrong puff.
Clam puffs are definitely a thing, but they tend to be a midcentury cream-cheese-with-beaten-egg-whites affair. I could not, for all my culinary gymnastics, update it to a palatable state. I tried smoked paprika; it turned them pink. I tried capers and it neither distracted from nor improved the bland, unjustified richness. I topped them with a little celery salad with sherry vinaigrette and it just made them soggy.
So I failed, miserably. Please forgive me! Because I can’t forgive myself.
And as soon as I send out this newsletter, I’m deleting all the terrible photographic evidence.
🥬 🥬🥬 That’s It! We’re done here! As usual, paid subscribers should keep an eye peeled for another treat soon, some truly delicious hors d'oeuvres that are not from a movie. And then we’ll get back to salad. In the meantime, if you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, please do so with the buttons below. Thanks for reading.