Monday, March 23, 2015

30. CLAM CHOWDER (My sister, Sherry)

The other day, as I was sorting through a collection of miscellany in a long neglected drawer, I found a little paper Santa Claus that triggered a swirl of memory.  Funny how simple little things can do that for me.  That’s partly why I have so much “stuff”.  I like to keep those triggers close at hand. Anyway, this paper Santa was part of a sheet of old fashioned German printed paper cuts that I had purchased years ago at Cost Plus in San Francisco.
Cost Plus.  Just the thought of it makes me all warm and tingly, and memories come rushing in all at once, out of chronological order.  I am a brown skinned teenager, tanned with the luxury of sunning myself at my oldest sister’s poolside.  My hair is long and blonde and floats in the breezes that come off of the bay. My memory of how I might have felt about how I looked at that point in my life is probably the most ideal and most healthy.  It was before my body turned on me, or I turned on it, or whatever it is we did. I was 13 or 14, on the verge of fruition, and everything was possible.
We "3 Little Girls" in Sherry's pool.
My sister Sherry was my first taste of independent womanhood, and I revered her.  When I was five years old, and our family moved from our small town in Shelley Idaho to Pittsburgh PA, Sherry had just graduated from high school.  I don’t remember much about that time in my life, in specifics.  But I do remember crying as I looked out the window of the airplane, leaving behind my sister and our dog, Schatze.

Sherry stayed behind to attend the University of Utah, and then Idaho State. Everything she did, she did on her own.  I cannot imagine how hard that had to have been.  She was like a second mother to us three little girls, born 15 and 18 months apart from each other. Our mom was a working mom, and burdened with a struggling marriage. I remember the feeling of safety that our older sisters' presence gave me.  I close my eyes and feel myself in Sherry's arms, her fingers wiping my tears, her whispers reassuring me when I was frightened.  Her devotion runs deep, and her determination is stunning.  She worked full time to earn enough money to pay her way through college.  She is one of the old breed, the rare kind who are not afraid to put their head down and push through hard work.  I suppose she never had the chance to do otherwise, being the eldest of 7 children.  Her instincts are to do good, and to be good, and so she would tell you that was her only choice.

Sherry graduated from college with a degree in Speech Language Pathology.  As fate would have it, after a few adventures, she landed in the San Francisco Bay area working as a Speech Pathologist.  She was a skilled and well respected professional, and her gifts with children were used daily as she taught school children how to communicate. When she wasn’t working, she was roller skating around McArthur Park, or sailing on the waters of San Francisco Bay, or swinging her hips from side to side, the red feathers of her Tahitian dance costume rising and falling to the beat of a Polynesian drum. She was a graceful and beautiful dancer.  I remember sitting on her bed as she dressed for work.  I don’t know how old I was…not yet a teenager, but old enough to want to be one.  I studied every move, learning how to be a grown up, with grace.

All these memories were made in the summers when we drove from Pittsburgh to CA to visit her. I remember watching her artfully apply her make up, her lips gracefully accepting the lipstick, her eyelashes elongating as she applied her mascara. She had the most amazing hair!  She thought otherwise, she will tell you, because she had to try to manage it in the humidity.  But it was full of body, and natural curl, and was so thick and flowing.  I remember her brushing it, and then stacking it on top of her head like a movie star.  My hair was straight, and thin, and never would have considered cooperating with anything but a braid or pony tail. 

I can still recall the scents of her apartments and condominiums; fresh lemons, and ocean breezes.  Absolutely fabulously fresh sour dough bread and Dungeness crab from the Wharf.  She has always had a flair for fine things.  Beautiful, earthy, simple and elegant.  Her living room was not the reinvented space of our mother,  It was her own, and it was lovely.  Beautifully thrown pottery graced her coffee table. Fine antiques, mixed with modern art.  She represented a space in the world that was new and exciting to me.  She was elegant, and yet she was down to earth, and I love that about her. 

When we would travel across this large continent of ours, from the east coast to her home on the west, I could tell we were close by the aromas and feeling in the air.  California was awake!  It was fresh, and green, and the air was wet, and a little salty.  It made the hairs on my forearms stand on end with excitement.  We smashed our little crew into her space, taking couches and floors for sleeping and ramen and Franco American spaghetti for lunch after swimming at her pool all morning while she was at work.As soon as she got home, we were in the car, headed to the city.  Ghirradelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars and Lombard Street all wove together to create an infusion of memory that keeps house in the lower chambers of my heart.  The creative bargain hunter in me was absolutely in heaven whe she introduced us to Cost Plus.  Massive warehouses, larger than the Children’s Palace of my early childhood dreams.  They imported from all over the world, food from Asia (this is where we first found Ramen noodles, long before they were available on grocery store shelves).  Furniture from the Far East.  Fabrics from countries whose names I could not pronounce.  And inexpensive little paper cut prints from Germany, shaped into snowmen and Santa Clauses.  How I loved Cost Plus!
Ann Marie and Libby in their Gunne Sax dresses
These were also the days when factory outlet stores were actually little outlets attached to the factory, where you could purchase slightly flawed items, or last season’s model at screaming deals.  I kept my Gunne Sacks dress for decades, the one Mom bought me at the outlet store.  I kept it because it made a great maternity dress, and because it made me feel like an earth child and a princess at the same child.  I kept it because it was a trigger, even when it was three sizes too small.  For all I know it’s still here in this house, somewhere J
So much of who I am now is because of my sister, Sherry.  From the very foundations of my human existence, when her comforting arms held me and nurtured me.  She made me excited to be a woman.  She showed me it was possible to work hard and take care of yourself, and yet not distance yourself from others.  She is intelligent, and responsible, and fun loving, and adventuresome.  There is no one like an older sister who can teach you such things so well.  And her devotion moves me still.
The sisters 5.
She lives one house away from me now, here in Utah.  Sometimes I will hear my kitchen door creak open and she steps in.  “I’m here to help,” she will say, knowing I am overwhelmed, or not feeling well.  It’s not a big scene for everyone to see.  It is her … being her.
Among her many talents, Sherry is a fabulous cook.  She has these amazing taste buds.  And a good sniffer.  Really, these are important to being a good cook.  We’ve always said Sherry could be a professional taste tester. She can take a bite of something, roll it around on her tongue, and tell you what the ingredients are, down to the spices used.  I’m fortunate because she knows how good food should taste, but she eats mine anyway.
Her abundant love now nurtures our little ones, who somehow also become her little ones.  We share all good things.
Snuggling Jonah Hansen
Here’s her recipe for Clam Chowder. It’s amazing.  We can’t have New Years around here without a pot of her delicious CLAM CHOWDER!
Sherry Davis
6-8 cans good quality chopped clams (sorry Crown Prince, we dont like your brand)

1 bottle clam juice (optional)

1 med yellow or white onion (3/4 c)

1 c finely chopped celery

2 c finely diced russet potatoes

salt and pepper

1 t. sugar

1 c butter

1 c. flour

1 ½  qts. Half & Half

Drain juice from clams and pour juice over veggies in heavy (good quality) med. to large sauce pan. Juice should barely cover vegetables.  Add extra clam juice or water if there is not enough juice to cover. Add 1 t. sugar, 1 tsp. salt and white pepper or finely ground black pepper.
Cover and simmer over med to low heat until barely tender (about 20 min.)

In a separate pan make roux:

1 c butter

1 c flour

Melt butter on stove top, add flour. Blend and cook together.  Use wire whisk to make smooth with no lumps.  Cook while stirring until it bubbles to cook flour or it will taste like paste.  Be careful not to burn. Add 1 1/2 quarts half and half (thats half cream half milk.)  Cook and stir constantly with whisk until hot and thick.  Should be VERY thick. 

Add veggie mix to white roux sauce. Heat through. Be careful, it will stick to the pan and burn easily.  Season with more salt and pepper if needed.  Add reserved clams.  Do not let boil.  This causes tough clams and will scorch or burn chowder.  If too thick add more half and half a little at a time.  Can also use evaporated milk to thin if needed. Do not use milk as it is difficult to incorporate and will separate if you refrigerate to use later.

Serve with thick slices of sour dough bread (Boudin brand, if youre lucky) and butter.  Serves 8-12


  1. Beautiful words about our beautiful sister. Love you both mtywek !

  2. Amazing! Love learning all those things about Sherry. Really loed all those pics!!

  3. Libby...I feel very blessed to come to Primary every Sunday and share in the festivities with you and your dear sisters..and the blessings will continue on throughout the eternities...
    Growing up in Point Loma..we had a Cost many memories...
    My love to up and your sweet family...
    Nancy Halbern

  4. I remember falling in love with the art and energy of San Francisco when I was a teen. Sherry carries that art and refinement wherever she goes! I've been so thankful for these years to get to know her better - to watch her dance in the kitchen with Anna or speak at eye-level with Joe. She has such a gift with little children! We love you, Aunt Sherry.