While growing up in the 1970s, when we had a Friday off during our school spring break during Lent, my mom, joined by my dad's sister, our Auntie Lilly, would take me, along with my older sister Pam and brother David to Michigan City for new Easter Sunday clothes shopping at Marquette Mall.
And one of the favorite moments of the trip is when we'd spot the familiar, bright orange, steep A-frame roof of the Howard Johnson's Restaurant and Lodge along U.S. 421. Besides their famed selection of "28 ice cream flavors," the hotel and dining chain popularized affordable seafood menu items like clam chowder and Soffron Brothers Clam Company's fried clam "strips" billed as "the foot of hard-shelled sea clams."
And if we happened to be celebrating a birthday on the day of our dining, and informed the waitress, we knew we'd have "free" tiny and very flat, round single layer birthday cake, loaded with icing, brought to our table. (These cakes always arrived barely thawed, since they must have come right from freezer storage and this was well before microwave ovens!)
Founded by Howard Johnson, who died at age 75 in 1972, it was the largest restaurant chain in the U.S. throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with more than 1,000 company owned and franchised outlets. The company began when Johnson, who borrowed $2,000 in 1925 to buy and operate a small corner pharmacy near his home in Quincy, Mass, found much of his success came from the soda fountain he installed and from selling ice cream with a recipe he said was based on his German mother's homemade ice creams and desserts.
By 1929, the first Howard Johnson's restaurant opened in Quincy, Mass. and featured fried clams, baked beans, chicken pot pies, frankfurters, ice cream and soft drinks. According to the company's history, Johnson said he received an incredible break due to an unusual set of circumstances: "The mayor of nearby Boston, Malcolm Nichols, prohibited the planned production of Eugene O'Neill's controversial play, 'Strange Interlude,' starring actress Lynn Fontanne, from performing in his city. Rather than fight the Mayor, the Theatre Guild moved the production to Quincy. The five-hour-long play was presented in two parts with a dinner break and since his first Howard Johnson's restaurant happened to be near the theater, he said hundreds of influential Bostonians flocked to the restaurant. Through word of mouth, he said Americans became familiar with the Howard Johnson's brand."
By 1954, the company opened the first Howard Johnson's motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia. Over the years, a number of notables worked at Howard Johnson's while getting their career start, including Food Network's Rachael Ray, who once worked as a teenager at the restaurant in Lake George, New York, which closed in Spring 2012. Today, only two original restaurants remain around the country, located in New York in Bangor and Lake Placid. In our area, we still have a Howard Johnson hotel (the chain is now owned and operated by Wyndham) in Lansing, Ill.
The most famous of all faces who worked for Howard Johnson's is French Chef Jacques Pepin, hired in 1961 to oversee food development at the company's main commissary in Brockton, Mass. and developed recipes for the company's signature dishes that could be "flash frozen and delivered." He talked to me about the experience when I interviewed him in 1999 in Chicago at Marshall Field's.
In his 2004 autobiography, "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen," Pepin described his years working at Howard Johnson's and how he deeply admired Howard Johnson.
"Fried clams and New England clam chowder were popular menu items at Howard Johnson's, and I soon learned to love them," he said, adding "the chowder was made in 3,000-gallon amounts."
The following recipe is courtesy of Chef Pepin, adjusted for a "reduced amount" for the Lenten Season.
Howard Johnson's New England Clam Chowder
5 quahog clams or 10 to 12 large cherrystone clams or 5 (6-ounce) tins of clams, undrained, substituted when in a pinch)
4 cups water
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 large onion (about 8 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (1-1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (2-1/4 cups)
1 cup light cream
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
DIRECTIONS: If using the fresh clams, wash the clams well under cold water, and put them in a saucepan with 2 cups of the water. Bring to a boil (this will take about 5 minutes), and boil gently for 10 minutes. Drain off and reserve the cooking liquid, remove the clams from their shells, and cut the clams into 1/2 –inch pieces (1-1/2 cups). Put the clam pieces in a bowl, then carefully pour the cooking liquid into another bowl, leaving behind any sediment or dirt. (You should have about 2-1/2 cups of stock.) Set aside the stock and the clams. Over medium heat, and gently cook onion and garlic, stirring for 1 minute. Add the flour, mix it in well, and cook for 10 seconds. Add the reserved stock (or the drained liquid from canned clams) and the thyme, and bring to a boil. Then add the potatoes and clams, bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to very low, and cook gently for 2 hours. At serving time, add the cream, milk, and pepper, bring to a boil, and serve. (Note: No salt should be needed because of the clam juice, but taste and season to your liking.) Makes 6 servings.