Recipes, history, stories in Will Holtham’s “Home Port Cookbook”

Recipes, history, stories in Will Holtham’s “Home Port Cookbook”

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“Home Port Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from Martha’s Vineyard” by Will Holtham. May 3, Lyons Press. 256 pp., $19.95.

In this age of celebrity chefs, the Food Network, and handheld internet devices, I’m hardly ever at a loss for a pecan pie or a tartar sauce recipe. But once I got my hands on the handsomely printed “Home Port Cookbook,” I couldn’t put it down.

It wasn’t the codfish cakes that roped me in (although I’m sure they are superb), it was the stories. Make no mistake, author Will Holtham, longtime owner of the Home Port Restaurant, packed well over 100 recipes into this 237-page gem, but the book is as much an homage to the Vineyard and the restaurant business as it is a guide to cooking all things seafood.

The book opens with five vignettes written by James Taylor, Judy Belushi Pisano, Michael J. Fox, Linda Fairstein, and Stan Hart. Each writer shares a personal connection with the legendary restaurant – summer jobs remembered, lifelong friendships formed and cultivated, lobster feasts celebrated, and cherished traditions relived.

Stan Hart’s contribution, last in the series, is particularly poignant in that he begins in the 1930s, well before Will Holtham tied on his first apron. His recollection is not only captivating, but it is a perfect segue to the historical account that follows. An excerpt from the Vineyard Gazette, June 30, 1931 announces the restaurant’s opening, predicting “probabilities of becoming one of the prominent centers of summer activity.”

Photos dating back more than 60 years, coupled with dubious reports from various eyewitnesses add a campfire story flavoring to documented facts.

Then, at last, it’s the author’s turn. Mr. Holtham begins with his introduction to the Vineyard, the Home Port and the working end of a restaurant, and he concludes with his improbable purchase of the legendary institution. His narrative is candid and concise, but it captures all the rigors and romance of abandoning one’s education in favor of 90-plus hour work weeks in high pressure kitchens.

The recipes are refreshingly simple in format. That is, they are unencumbered with tedious details. For me, there is nothing simple about chopping, cooking, straining, and disposing of eight to 10 lobster bodies before they stink up my kitchen or attract every varmint in the neighborhood, but I appreciate the straightforward instructions.

Most of the recipes are, really very well suited for the practical home cook: Baked Striped Bass with Herb Stuffing, Teriyaki Swordfish, and Smoked Fish Dip, to name a few. There is also a section on culinary components including such versatile items as casino butter, ginger glaze, and court bouillon. And, there’s information that every New Englander should have, such as how to prepare a traditional clambake and how to shuck clams, quahogs and oysters. Mouthwatering color photos are abundant, and interspersed with the recipes are more stories, about celebrity customers and local characters, kitchen disasters and staffing nightmares, the lost art of swordfish harpooning, and so on.

The Home Port Cookbook leaves me with only one regret. After several weeks of stalking Mr. Holtham with my neatly typed resume in the spring of 1993, I never got the job.

This is a book that makes you want to know the author. It makes you want to be in Menemsha, eat lobster, go scalloping, grill shrimp. Every now and again I stumble upon a cookbook that inspires me. This book does exactly that. It reminds me how much I love seafood and how much I love Martha’s Vineyard.

Teresa Brewster, of Oak Bluffs, was the former Good Taste columnist for The Times.