I was going to write a column about New Year’s Eve celebration foods but got distracted by Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman (Liveright 2018; $23.95), a look at how food evolved in this country. I’m going to be interviewing the author after I finish the book but instead of reading it from front to cover as soon as I read the introduction I turned to the chapter on Howard Johnson’s because those orange roofed restaurants and lodges are part of my youth. I worked at HoJo’s when I was a teen and as a young girl, when we traveled to New York, Connecticut and along the eastern seaboard, we typically stayed at their lodges.
I remember the sparkling pool, so inviting after a long day in the car, trying to read a book or do crossword puzzles while whizzing along—we only had an AM radio in the car and my mother didn’t like the noise of it when she was driving. Dinner was typically fried clams, hamburgers or clam chowder and always one of their many flavors of ice cream. Probably most famous for their clam dishes, the chapter about Ho Jo’s in Freedman’s book is titled Howard Johnson’s: As American As Fried Clams. If you’re wondering about all the clam dishes, Johnson was from Massachusetts and the chain started off in New England. And maybe people ate more clams back then.
At one time, according to the book, during the 1970s, Howard Johnson had 929 restaurants and 526 motor lodges stretching across the U.S. In the 1960s, the restaurants served more meals outside the home than any company or organization except for the U.S. Army. There actually was a Howard Johnson (his middle name was Deering) and he was born in 1897 and though he liked to present himself, even at the height of his company’s success, as a simple man, he married four times, owned a yacht, three houses and a substantial art collection. Oh, and he didn’t really eat at Howard Johnson’s much. Instead he liked high-end French dining like Le Pavillon and the Stork Club, both fancy and ultra-expensive New York restaurants.
I’m not quite sure if there are any HoJo’s left. There were a handful less than a decade ago including on in Times Square and another in Bangor, Maine but those are gone. A Google search indicates that the last one, in Lake George, New York, was, as of earlier this year, was up for sale as a possible site for redevelopment. It had just re-opened the year before after being closed for four years. Unfortunately the person who had re-opened it had some legal issues. For more information, check out hojoland.com, a Website for all things Howard Johnson’s.
Occasionally I see a building that looks like it was once a HoJo but has been converted to another use and the orange roof has usually been replaced. Because there are websites for almost anything, there are a few identifying converted HoJo’s as well.
Though the restaurants are gone, many of the recipes remain and I looked up a few that I remember enjoying way back when and was fascinated to find out that the legendary French chef Jacque Pepin once worked at HoJo’s, a time he talks about in his memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Pepin, who would make their clam chowder in 3,000-gallon amounts, recreated the recipe for home cooks, saying he makes it “when a bit of Howard Johnson’s nostalgia creeps in.” His contains pancetta which I’m guessing is a substitute for the bacon in the original recipe and he also uses Yukon Gold potatoes and I don’t think that variety was common back in 1929 when Johnson opened his first restaurant.
Jacques Pepin Howard Johnson’s Clam Chowder
5 quahog clams or 10 to 12 large cherrystone clams
4 cups water
4 ounces pancetta or lean, cured pork, cut into 1-inch pieces (about ¾ cup)
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 ½-inch dice (2-1/4 cups)
1 cup light cream
1 cup milk
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
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.
Put the pancetta or pork pieces in a large saucepan, and cover with the remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, and boil for 30 seconds. Drain the pancetta, and wash it in a sieve under cold water. Rinse the saucepan, and return the pancetta to the pan with the oil. Place over medium heat, and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 8 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and continue cooking, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the flour, mix it in well, and cook for 10 seconds. Add the reserved stock 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 and pancetta, but taste and season to your liking.)
Howard Johnson’s Fried Clams
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Dash salt and pepper
4 dozen freshly shucked clams
1 cup cake flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
Oil for frying
Combine evaporated milk and whole milk, egg, vanilla, salt, and pepper. Soak clams in liquid and then dredge in combination of cake flour and cornmeal, fluffing them in the flour mixture for light but thorough coverage. Shake off excess flour and fry in oil. Serve with French-fried potatoes, tartar sauce, homemade rolls, and butter.
Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes
6 tablespoons chicken fat (can use butter instead)
1 ¼ cups flour
2 1/4 quarts chicken stock. hot
6 tablespoons chopped onions
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 cups bread crumbs
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds boneless chicken, finely minced
Sauté onions in chicken fat but do not brown.
Make a roux (recipe below). Add hot chicken stock, and add seasonings. Stir constantly until mixture thickens and is well blended.
Add minced chicken and chopped parsley. Cook 5 minutes more, then remove from fire and chill. Scoop and shape into croquettes. Dip in flour, egg wash and bread crumbs and fry in deep fat until lightly browned on all sides.
These were served a cream sauce (see recipe below).
1/4 pound butter
1 stalk celery, minced
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
Melt butter in pan; stir in flour and seasonings. Cook on low until smooth; stirring constantly, add broth and milk slowly; to maintain thickness, stir on medium heat until all milk and broth is added and sauce is thick.
In a heavy pot, melt butter and then add the minced celery. Stir in the flour and cook for 3 minutes., stirring constantly. Fold in the chicken meat and allow to cool.
Howard Johnson’s Boston Brown Bread
1 cup unsifted whole wheat flour
1 cup unsifted rye flour
1 cup yellow corn meal
11/2 teaspoon baking soda
11/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup molasses
2 cups buttermilk
Grease and flour a 2 quart mold. Combine flours, corn meal, soda ,salt. Stir in molasses, buttermilk.
Turn into mold, cover tightly. Place on trivet in deep kettle. Add enough boiling water to kettle
to come half way up sides of mold; cover. Steam 3 1/2 hr., or until done. Remove from mold to cake
rack. Serve hot with baked beans.
Makes 1 loaf
2 thoughts on “Ten Restaurants That Changed America: Howard Johnson’s A Roadside Gem”
Great post with a photo of young chef Pepin – not many people know that he worked with HOJOs.
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I know, it blew my mind too. Though I have to admit I was always a sucker for their clam strips.