We Chose Cape Cod

By Tom Dott / Photography By Bambi Edlund | December 01, 2013
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illustration of tips to eat and prepare Cape Cod turkey

The more gadgets, gimmicks and gigabytes we’re offered, the more I miss my Mother telling me to go outside and play, before telephones told you which exit to take, and when the contents of my bookshelf outnumbered the channels of my TV. But when things seem too complicated and convoluted, it’s important to have a place to retreat to—a place that offers a little peace of mind. I found such a place in the form of a book given to me by a friend. It’s a year-in-a-life story published in 1953 called We Chose Cape Cod, which takes place here at home, in a simpler time when families would walk together to Sunday Mass, villages would have welcome parties to meet the new neighbors, friends would meet with clam rakes in hand when they were feeling peckish, and the entire town would turn out for square dance socials. Freelance writer and author of We Chose Cape Cod, Scott Corbett, left his home in Manhattan with his wife Elizabeth and their eight-year old daughter Florence (who would insist on being called “Janie” from the second chapter on), for a life in East Dennis, in particular a little area called Quivet Neck. It is there where the Corbett clan would have to learn to fit in.

Finding Their Way

It took us a while to wake up to some of the things that were going on around us. Cape Codders did not sit newcomers down and give them a briefing on all the wonderful produce to be gotten for the getting. We heard about sea clams almost by indirection. We kept hearing little conversations such as:

“Well Caleb. Go clammin’ yesterday?”

“Yep, Got a few.”

“I got half a bucket. Weren’t showing, though.”

“No. Wind wrong.”

Or we would hear reference to “next or last sea-clamming tide,” and to something called “sea clam pie.” When we asked questions about sea clamming we generally got a blank look and vague replies…

As the weather grew warmer and we grew more suspicious we were missing something, we finally overheard one Cape Codder ask another if he was “goin’ sea clammin’ termorrer.” That was the slip we had been waiting for.

The next day Scott figured out—as best he could without having to ask—that 6:30 that evening would be the best time to collect his shiny new clam rakes and buckets and take the family down to the neighborhood beach to find sea clams. Arriving at the beach at dusk, they marched down to the water, passing several smug looking groups lugging sacks and buckets filled with clams—all walking in the opposite direction.

Among those making their booty-laden exodus from the flats were the Bassetts, our square dance instructors of the Newcomers’ Party. They stopped and looked at us pityingly. “Oh, you’re too late,” they told us, and being Cape Codders were hard put not to appear pleased. It seemed that low tide had occurred at 6:15 that evening, which was the very latest that we should have arrived.

The next time the sea-clamming tides rolled in again, Scott, Elizabeth and Florence were ready—but it seemed the clams had been tipped off on the Corbett’s arrival. With not a clam to be had, but plenty of crabs getting trapped in the rake prongs, they considered forever shifting their choice of prey. But, as anyone whose caught the shellfishing bug knows, when faced with the emotional anguish and financial embarrassment of throwing in the towel and buying clams at the market (even in 1953 they cost a whopping 25 cents apiece), it’s easy to be seduced back into a pair of rubbery waders.

Eventually, during a short-lived Hallelujah moment, Scott raked his first clam, at which Elizabeth announced, “It must be sick or dead, to let itself be caught by us.” But it was indeed alive, and by the time the Corbett family walked back to the car that evening they had raked up seven more good-sized sea clams—a decent haul, but not quite enough for a proper clam pie, which friends insisted required “at least two dozen”. In a time where clamming was an essential part of daily life on Cape Cod, not knowing how to make a clam pie would undoubtedly give a person pause before ringing the neighbor for a recipe. So after deciding their bounty would be perfect for a proper, albeit smallish, clam pie, Elizabeth decided she’d figure it out, flipping through cookbooks and relying on her “cook’s sixth sense” for guidance. Meanwhile, Scott would record the creamy, crowning achievement for his book.

First she cut up one quarter-pound of salt pork into little cubes and tried the grease out in a skillet. Many good sea-clam pie makers use no salt pork, this being a matter of taste. Where pork is not used the recipe is much simpler…After the cubes were brown and crisp, she removed them from the skillet, put in two medium sized chopped onions and browned them. Removing the skillet from the fire she added the sea clams to the pork fat and onions, mixed them thoroughly, and poured the mixture into the pie shell. The top crust was then added and she made several slits in it and poured about a quarter cup of milk over it. The pie was baked in a moderate (375º) oven. A sea-clam pie should be baked for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the crust is well browned.

Just before suppertime they received a phone call from a friend who wanted to know if they had gone clamming that day. The caller hadn’t gone out because it wasn’t a good tide, and heard that the clamming had been poor. When asked how he did, Scott, no doubt feeling a slight sense of both accomplishment and competition, smugly bragged about his “half a bucket”. Scott, Elizabeth and Florence were starting to blend in.

Scott Corbett’s first year on Cape Cod is filled with anecdotes of gatherings from days of old: the local mechanic, pharmacist, gas station attendant and fish monger getting together to rehearse skits for the minstrel show; The Young Couples Club putting on a pot luck casserole supper at the Jacob Sears Hall; and several pages on an emergency meeting about whether or not the Ladies Aid commercial coffee maker could continue to be loaned out for such town gatherings. But the stories of Scott Corbett taking on the Cape’s natural resources are my favorites. In one chapter, learning how to properly make Cape Cod Turkey out of salt cod gripped my curiosity, and Scott’s attempt at catching “sea bass” had me in hysterics. His friends were always more than ready to explain the difference between a fishing rod (something Cape Codders fished with) and a fishing pole (apparently there is no such thing. “A pole is something you run a flag up or string a clothesline from,” Scott found out.) There was much to learn if you wanted to call yourself a true Cape Codder.

“Well, for up here you’d better get yourself a regular salt water rod,” Caleb said. They’re shorter and bigger around. That one of yours is a little flexible for these waters.”

“Not heavy enough for sea bass, eh?” I asked, and this time they both winced.

“Striped bass!” corrected Asa. I knew the king of the local fish world was the striper, but coming up recently from New York I happened to be more familiar with the sea bass, which we had cooked a great deal in a special sauce, and it was natural to me, when mentioning bass, so say “sea bass.” But to a Cape Codder it was like mistaking a poor relation for a rich aunt.

“I’ll never be invited into anybody’s boat around here,” I told Elizabeth after our guests had gone. “All I have to do is keep talking about catching sea bass with my fishing pole and they won’t even let me out on the bay!”

Some time after completing We Chose Cape Cod, I found myself thumbing though the book a second time, and later, a third. I felt a connection to Scott, his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Florence, even though they had moved from Manhattan to Cape Cod years before I was even born. The allure of the simple, quiet life they found here was palatable enough for me to want to relive it, in a sense, so I’d highlight sentences in the book that described their walks through the Quivet Neck neighborhood, as well as their house. Hints about their home, like “a useless porch running the length of the front of the house,” “tall pine trees in the front”, “a three-car garage,” and “the equivalent of five New York City blocks from the church,” fueled my sleuthing nature.

One crisp, fall day, after an exhausting morning of taking care of inn guests, I took a drive and eventually found my truck idling in front of what I surmised was the old Corbett house in Quivet Neck. I could see the short driveway where a young Florence built her first snowman, and the vibrant yellows, greens and golds of the sweeping marsh behind the house that her father waxed poetically about. The neighborhood didn’t seem to have grown up much at all. In fact, just next to the Corbett house, the place where the road used to meet “the highway” (as they referred to historic Route 6A—this was many years before Route 6 was built) was now overgrown and groomed into a breathtaking hiking trail through the marsh.

After hiking the trail, I walked over to their old church and then up to the nearby beach, which was devoid of the summer bedlam of lotion-slathered sun bathers, brightly colored kayaks, wind surfers and, yes, clammers. I pulled my cell phone out of my windbreaker pocket and called the friend who had given me my copy of the book. “Do you know what ever happened to Scott Corbett?” I asked her, looking out onto the windswept shoreline. “I searched him online a while back,” she replied. “If I remember correctly his obituary read that he passed away back in 2006 and his wife Elizabeth died in 1990. Why, what’s up?” she asked. “Just curious, I guess”, and with that I thanked her, stuffed my phone into my jacket pocket, and took a long walk down the blustery beach.

Finding Janie

A few days after exploring the leaf-covered roads and hidden pathways of Quivet Neck, I wondered if Scott’s daughter Florence was still in Dennis, so I did an online search, but to no avail. Curiosity getting the better of me, I decided one morning to write to the local paper’s cleverly titled Sunday column Write to Know, where readers can email queries on everything from old recipes and historical questions to the whereabouts of long-forgotten collectables and not-yet-forgotten people.

Dear Write to Know: I recently read the book, We Chose Cape Cod by Scott Corbett of East Dennis. It’s a wonderful and endearing book about his family’s first year on the Cape. I understand Mr. Corbett has left us, but I was wondering if his daughter, Florence, is still on Cape Cod (she was about eight years old in 1953). I would love to meet her and talk Cape Cod Turkey, which is an old salt cod dish! ~ T.D., Barnstable.

The following Sunday morning I was pleased to see that my query made it to print, but as the day came to a close I couldn’t help but feel my search for Florence was over. The next afternoon I received a call from Pam Eaton of Dennis Village. Pam was a fellow fan of Scott Corbett’s Cape Cod work, and had owned and given away several copies. Her energy was radiating through the holes of the receiver and I couldn’t tell if she was ecstatic that someone else had discovered this treasure of a paperback, or that she finally had a reason to let her volcano of information that had been collecting on Scott Corbett erupt.

After exchanging lively conversation on favorite moments of the book, historical landmarks of Dennis Village and some little-known background on Scott Corbett, Pam told me that she had reached out to Scott many years ago after the Corbetts relocated to Providence, and that she and her husband Baird had written several letters back and forth with Scott. “I’ll mail you copies of all the correspondence,” Pam promised, “And I’ll email you a photo of his house!” (She had pieced together clues of the house just as I had, and after receiving the packet of letters and photos three days later, a picture of the house, with a giant magic marker arrow pointing to it, proved I had been right that recent afternoon). Just as our conversation was winding down, Pam chimed in, “Oh, I almost forgot! Listen to this part of a letter he sent in July of 1990.”

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Eaton: It’s always not only pleasant but astonishing to receive a letter about a book written nearly forty years ago, a book that is largely ancient history now. A book that talks about days when a five-horse outboard was the norm, a ten-horse the big one. Days when minstrel shows were performed in the dead of winter for the year-round population. I’m happy to hear that you, with roots in Cape Cod, are living there now and confronting New York visitors with my book, but I hope you explain that the Cape it describes is mostly gone.”

Pam fumbled with the letter. “Oh here it is! It’s about Florence.” She continued to read, “We lived in New York for more than a decade, and have a daughter (still living there) and two grandchildren who all were born on the island of Manhattan.” Pam adjusted her attention from the letter back to the phone, informing me that after reading my request in Write to Know she did an online search for Florence Corbett in Manhattan, and after having no luck suddenly remembered that in the second chapter of the book an eight-year old Florence informed everyone that she preferred the name Janie. Sure enough, a Jane Corbett did reside in New York City, and in my packet Pam promised I’d receive her contact information as well.

Little Janie Corbett, the eight-year-old who once collected snails in a clam bucket while carelessly splashing in salty puddles behind her father’s footsteps, was now Jane Corbett Flusser, Executive Deputy Commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources. She held a Master’s in Healthcare and Executive Leadership from Cornell, a Graduate Degree at Stanford University, an MPA from Columbia and was an art history major at Middlebury College. Phone message after phone message ensued, and I finally got a call back from Jane’s husband, Martin: “Jane would love to speak with you about her father’s book, but she’s pretty tied up and has quite a few meetings this week. Get out your calendar and I’ll help you set up a time to talk with her.”

Four days later, during my fifteen-minute window of opportunity, I had Jane on the phone. She sounded distracted, with one foot going into a meeting, but seemed genuinely happy for the phone call, and as we fell into friendly conversation her distractions dissipated. We talked about the yearly minstrel shows, the square dancing gatherings and generally how life—and more particularly her life—was so different then, with the pollution of car horns and ambulance sirens in the background driving the point home. But just like in her father’s book, Jane’s recollection of her family’s escapades while navigating Cape Cod’s natural resources gave me the greatest pleasure.

“I don’t think he wrote about it, but all those feelings of shellfishing inadequacy were made up for in one day,” Jane announced. “One morning when Dad was out clamming he raked up a bottle of really good champagne…and then another bottle and another. He just kept finding them! We figured they must have been from a boat wreck of some sort. The bottles were perfectly preserved in the cold water, and he certainly enjoyed that catch!”

I asked Jane about Cape Cod Turkey, the strange-sounding salt cod dish I read about in the book. Further research led me to believe that back in its day, Cape Cod Turkey was pretty darn popular (I recently learned that the Bass River Shoe Repair in South Yarmouth, built in 1860 and then called Blind Reuben’s General Store, was reinvented as a popular restaurant where Cape Cod Turkey was a favorite dish). However, it was not known to the Corbetts, but their friend Freddie fixed that.

“What? You never had Cape Cod Turkey?”

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“Well, Jeezcrise! You’ve got to fix some Cape Cod Turkey! I’ll tell you how to do it…You take a piece of salt cod and soak it and then boil it. You take a piece of salt pork and cut it up fine and put it in a frying pan and try it out until it’s cooked down to little crispy brown squares. You take out the crispy squares and make cream gravy with the fat. You boil potatoes, and you have some cold pickled beets. You take your plate and put on it a piece of cod and some of those little pork squares and some potatoes and some gravy and pickled beets. The way to eat it is to take a piece of cod and some salt pork and gravy on a bite of potato and eat them all together. You have to eat them all together to get the real taste. Then you eat a slice of picked beet. Then another bite of cod and salt pork and gravy and potato, and so on. That’s Cape Cod Turkey.”

It was decided that the Corbetts would try this Cape Cod tradition on their own, although Freddie was poised by the phone before, during, and after the undertaking.

Toward suppertime Freddie called again. “Are you fixing it yet? How are you doing it?” Elizabeth described her efforts. “That’s right, you’re doing OK.”

We sat down to Cape Cod Turkey, and it was delicious. We were enjoying it when the phone rang again.

“Have you had it yet?”

“We’re just eating it now.”

“Well, how is it?”

“Wonderful.”

“What did I tell you? There’s nothing better than Cape Cod Turkey. I could eat it every day. How are you eating it? Are you eating a bite of potato with a piece of cod and some salt pork” I assured him we were following the instructions, bite by bite. The odd part about it, as was so often the case with Freddie, was that he was right. The combination of the three things was everything. Not only that, but pickled beets were unquestionably the proper supporting cast.

Eating Cape Cod Turkey was something Jane Corbett Flusser didn’t remember. “That was so long ago…but I remember Freddie. Dad used different names for the book. Freddie was actually a guy named Billy Stone, and I remember Mr. Stone used to go on and on about that dish—it sounds delicious!” I thanked Jane for taking the time and told her that if she ever found the time to return to Cape Cod she should be our guest at the inn. “I haven’t been to Cape Cod in ages”, she said thoughtfully, “But it sure is nice to catch up with you and think about the book again. Toward the end of his life, when Dad was sick, he would ask me to read that book to him every time I came to visit. It always reminded him of a very special time in his life. Thank you for the phone call.” With that, Jane hung up and headed into her meeting.

I retreated back to page 182 of We Chose Cape Cod to spend a little more time with Scott and his friend “Freddie”. When Ali got home I asked her to help me concoct a Cape Cod Turkey, in honor of a man whom I’ve never met, but whom I truly miss.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/we-chose-cape-cod
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