I recently took a little road trip through Oregon, a state in the northwestern corner of the United States, and found myself in a small city along the historic Oregon Trail called Baker City. Not much was open around town, partially due to the weather (this is the off-season), but mostly because of pandemic restrictions. I normally wouldn’t condone traveling under these conditions, but for personal reasons the stop was necessary.
Believe it or not, Baker was once the largest city between Portland and Salt Lake City and was a hub of 19th and early 20th-century industry, truly a “frontier metropolis.” The city’s history is filled with all things Old West, from pioneers and Gold Rush miners to stagecoaches, saloons and brothels. Progress and enormous wealth came with the building of railroads and the shipping of timber that was plentiful in the area. Despite its rustic origins and colorful inhabitants (or perhaps because of them), the Arts and Epicurean luxury also thrived in historic Baker City. Regular events were hosted at the city’s two opera houses and the now-restored Victorian-era and art deco architecture is stunning.
One of the most impressive and historically luxurious buildings in Baker City is the Geiser Grand Hotel, which is where my family stayed for a night. The hotel was built in 1889 as the Warshauer Hotel and boasted multiple stories, a clock tower, a stained glass ceiling, marble floors, crystal chandeliers and it even contained one of the first operating elevators in the American West. The hotel’s name changed to its current one in 1902 when it was purchased by Albert Geiser. It, along with many other historic buildings in the area, fell into disrepair in the late 1960’s and 70’s. Luckily, the Geiser Grand was restored to its former glory in 1998.
In the basement of the Geiser Grand Hotel is a little museum of sorts, with artifacts including a framed Christmas menu from 1905. I photographed the menu (with permission from the staff) and decided right then that I would hunt down a period recipe for at least one of those items.
The first of the presumably “starter” items that interested me was this Clam Bouillon Demi Tasse. Sounds fancy!
Turns out, applying a French name to an otherwise unspectacular dish really does make it sound more opulent than it is. And wealthy Edwardians seeking out haute cuisine would have eaten it right up. Everyone knew that all the best restaurants were French! In 1905, no luxury hotel restauranteur worth his salt would serve clam broth and call it Clam Broth. It sounds much more elegant as Clam Bouillon Demi Tasse. By the way, demi tasse is just French for half cup. Half Cup of Clam Broth.
Clam broth or bouillon was a surprisingly common soup or consommé-style beverage that was served for just about any occasion; Afternoon tea, picnics, bridal luncheons, receptions, or just as an ordinary evening refreshment. It was frequently served for Christmas, sometimes at the frappe (chilled items) table.
“Coming home from the theatre, a cup of cold Consommé, French Bouillon or Clam Broth taken before retiring will insure a good night’s sleep.”A. Biardot, Franco-American Soups and Other Specialties. p. 31
“…during the cold months, especially if one has been for a long walk or drive, a cup of hot bouillon or clam broth will prove a most acceptable beginning.”Eleanor Marchant, Serving and Waiting. p. 26
Clam broth was considered to be a very nutritious restorative and would be served hot or cold. It even could be purchased in a can, as described below by A. Biardot, President of the Franco-American Food Company, in his 1902 advertisement book:
A detailed description of how to serve bouillon in a restaurant, with an accompanying menu mentioning clam bouillon en tasse, can be found in Eleanor Marchant’s book “Serving and Waiting: Modern Methods of Table Preparation.” (1905)
In 1910, clam bouillon was listed as one of the most in-demand popular soups in “Fellows’ Menu Maker :suggestions for selecting and arranging menus for hotels and restaurants,” by Charles Fellows. Clam broth or clam bouillon is listed in an enormous number of Fellows’ Lunch and breakfast menus.
I don’t know exactly when clam bouillon went out of style in the United States or why, but based on a Hathitrust Digital Library search spanning thousands of recipe and menu books, it appears to have been most popular between 1880 and 1920. Whether its decline in popularity was due to the rise of mass-produced bouillon cubes beginning in 1910 or simply society’s ever-changing tastes, clam bouillon began to disappear from restaurant menus until its existence became a distant memory. These days people are far more likely to use commercially-bottled clam juice in chowder, cocktails or other recipes rather than drink it plain.
I couldn’t find any period recipes specific to Eastern Oregon or The Geiser Grand Hotel, but all the recipes I did find were basically the same. Baker City is not by the coast so it’s likely clams would have been shipped in by rail from Portland or Astoria.
This one comes from a 1905 book called “How to Cook for the Sick and Convalescent” by Helena Sachse. There are two variations, the first calling for clams in their shells and the other using shelled clams that may or may not have come in a can.
I opted to use the second one because I do not have access to fresh clams that I trust with my life. Canned clams were common in 1905 so I don’t think it would be terribly historically inaccurate to use those.
- 2 cans of minced clams
- 1 cup of water
Drain the clams (saving the juice) and chop them very fine. Place them in a small saucepan in their own juice and the cold water. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring frequently, then simmer about five minutes. Skim carefully. Strain through two thicknesses of cheese-cloth. Dilute to taste with warm water. Serve hot or cold.
This is an incredibly simple recipe, almost embarrassingly so. Step-by-step directions are hardly necessary here.
Dump the contents of both cans (clams and juice) into a saucepan and add a cup of cold water. Bring to a boil then simmer for five minutes. Skim the surface carefully with a spoon. Line a colander with two layers of cheesecloth and set onto a bowl or pan to collect the broth. Pour the broth through the cheesecloth, gathering it like a bag to squeeze out any excess fluid. Serve hot or cold.
If you want to serve this in true 1905 style, fill half of a teacup or two-handled bouillon cup with the broth and serve with crackers or croutons. For Christmas, each place setting would have a cloth napkin and the table would be decorated with holly and/or green wax candles. Eleanor Marchant’s book contains additional decorating and menu ideas for Christmas breakfast, dinner and supper.
I had never heard of clam bouillon until now, but as a fan of bouillon in general I wasn’t terribly put off by the idea. I’ve eaten a lot of clam chowder in my lifetime so I was initially concerned that the broth would be too watery and not very flavorful. I was very wrong.
The first thing I thought of when drinking this was Japanese miso soup, though clam broth is far less complex. It has a very umami-esque flavor to it and could very easily double as a base for Ramen noodles. It obviously tastes like clams but it’s actually a very pleasant broth that I would absolutely make again! I tried it both hot and cold and while both are delicious, I might prefer it hot.
From start to finish it takes only 10 minutes to make, so if you like clams and/or bouillon there is no reason why you shouldn’t try this recipe. And if you’re so inclined, serve it at your next Victorian/Edwardian-themed Christmas feast.
- Ikenberry, Donna, “ History Is Its Future Baker City, In Both Name And Spirit, Turns To Its Pioneer History As A Drawing Point For Visitors.” The Spokesman Review. Archived article: May 12, 1996. Accessed December 7, 2020.
- Baker City, Oregon. Western Mining History. Westernmininghistory.com. Accessed December 7, 2020.
- Biardot, A. Franco-American Soups And Other Specialties: a Description of Each Variety. Jersey City Heights, N.J.: Franco-American Food Co., 1902.
- Fellows, Charles, 1866-1921. Fellows’ Menu Maker: Suggestions for Selecting And Arranging Menus for Hotels And Restaurants, With Object of Changing From Day to Day to Give a Variety of Foods In Season. Chicago: Hotel Monthly, 1910.
- Marchant, Eleanor. Serving And Waiting: Modern Methods of Table Preparation. New York: F. A. Stokes company, 1905.
- Sachse, Helena Viola, 1873-1955. [from old catalog]. How to Cook for the Sick And Convalescent. 3d ed. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott company, 1905.
- Winters, Matt. “He’s got a razor! Clamming is fundamental to coastal living.” The Chinook Observer. Nov 28, 2017, Updated Dec 20, 2018.