Philadelphia's Heirloom restaurant in Chestnut Hill celebrates heirloom recipes

Mrs. Nancy Pugh is the winner of the Heirloom restaurant contest that invited people to submit recipes. Her's recipe was selected, Mrs. Pugh Summer Lobster Pot. It was prepared by Chef/Owner Al Paris at his restaurant on Germantown Ave in Chestnut Hill, Phila and it will be served to his patrons. She is shown holding a copy of the handwritten recipe as prepared by chef for his purposes. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Mrs. Nancy Pugh is the winner of the Heirloom restaurant contest that invited people to submit recipes. Her's recipe was selected, Mrs. Pugh Summer Lobster Pot. It was prepared by Chef/Owner Al Paris at his restaurant on Germantown Ave in Chestnut Hill, Phila and it will be served to his patrons. She is shown holding a copy of the handwritten recipe as prepared by chef for his purposes. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: July 06, 2012

WHEN CHEF Al Paris makes his grandmother's recipe for chicken soup, her memory is conjured along with the taste of rich poultry broth and hand-cut vegetables. "It's like she's in the room with me," said Paris. "It's a memory I can experience any time."

Channeling that kind of food and love connection — one powerful enough to bring a person back from the other side, even just for lunch — was part of the inspiration for his first annual Heirloom Fine American Cookery recipe contest. Named for Paris' new seasonal American restaurant in Chestnut Hill, the contest was a way to connect with the community and get a conversation started about special dishes and the memories they evoke.

Paris, a passionate and seasoned chef who exudes warmth and humor, put the call out in late April for vintage recipes from family and friends. He got about 50 responses. His goal was to pick one recipe in mid-June to add to Heirloom's new summer menu, credited by name to the winner, who would also be invited along with seven guests to have dinner on Paris at his restaurant.

"I wanted people to share their traditions with us," said Paris. "Heirloom recipes to me are living memories. Besides being a business, I want us to exist as a protector of those sorts of things."

Some of the entries dated back a century. Tricia Walmsley brought in her grandmother Annie Wrightson's handwritten recipe book, compiled in her native Western Australia around the turn of the 20th century. "There weren't cookbooks everywhere back then," said Walmsley, a Chestnut Hill resident since the late '70s. In Wrightson's day Down Under, Walmsley recalled, "there was one, the Golden Wattle [Cookery Book, published in 1926], but that was it."

Besides carefully measured recipes for pound cake and jam roll, the small black book offers a few homemade remedies for ringworm ("soak a penny in vinegar until it becomes green … ") and directions for making everything from "potent manure" to soap.

"This book is a connection to those early times in Australia when things were so much different than they are now," she said. "And reading it reminds me of her, and of the times we'd have tea together and eat her lovely cakes."

Preserving ‘endangered recipes'

The fact that there was such a big response to Paris' call for heirloom recipes doesn't surprise Lari Robling, who codified an entire book of precious food memories in her cookbook Endangered Recipes Too Good to be Forgotten (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $30). Robling put out a nationwide call for traditional recipes after she missed her grandmother's Parker House rolls and baked beans on the Thanksgiving table. "None of us had learned how to make her two special dishes, and when she passed, we all regretted that," said Robling. "That set me on my search to re-create them, and, along the way, I found many other treasured recipes and the people saving them."

Besides recipes for Green Goddess Dressing and Noodle Kugel, Endangered Recipes offers a chapter on "Passing Down the Plate" that provides tips for how to translate quirky recipes and standardize them to pass to the next generation.

Paris felt honored to review the stacks of recipe cards and handwritten directions on torn sheets of paper for vintage dishes like pavlova (a fruited meringue cake) and something called pineapple coffee chicken. While he had fun reading all of the recipes, some weren't a good match for his restaurant's relaxed fine-dining sensibility. But the one recipe that stood out from the crowd was Nancy Pugh's Steamed Seafood and Chicken Lobster Pot. Pugh, a resident of nearby Erdenheim, was pleased to win the contest.

Her recipe came from a friend about 25 years ago and is her go-to for entertaining at the family's Ocean City, N.J., home. "This is the kind of dish that always comes out delicious, and everybody loves it."

Pugh likes to serve the mix of clams, lobster, chicken, corn and potatoes over pasta. The mother of five doesn't consider herself a gourmet cook — "Cooking is overrated when you have to do it every day!" — but enjoys sharing this dish. Pugh's version uses beer in the broth, which Paris substituted with wine. He explained, "If I was eating this dish at the Shore outside, beer would be perfect. The wine adds another dimension and refinement to the flavors."

What was it about Pugh's seafood dish that earned it the blue ribbon? "Nothing says American summer to me more than a clam bake," said Paris. "That's what this is. We start with clams, put in smoked chicken, mussels, lobster corn and fingerlings, all in an Old Bay-spiced buttery wine broth. It's amazing."

The dish will be on the menu at Heirloom all summer, for $29. "Everybody seems to have a special recipe or two they treasure from their family or close friends," said the chef. "This contest was a way to channel some of those good memories and get them back on the plate."

Food and travel writer Beth D'Addono writes about authentic travel experiences at unchainedtravel.com.

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