Best Cook: Johnnycake and Chowder
The scents of a hot griddle and sauteed onions fill the kitchen of Barbara Stetson’s 18th-century North Scituate house. Barbara is known locally as the Johnnycake Queen, which, in a state in love with johnnycakes, is tantamount to being the queen of all.
Barbara calls herself “a good plain cook” who wants to show people how they can make good things fast. She is in the midst of making chowder, a very good thing. “People don’t have the time,” she says. “They want to be able to make something that’s quick with ingredients they have on hand. They want something that’s good.”
She already has the onions jumping at the bottom of a Dutch oven. To her left, a row of johnnycakes sizzle on the griddle.
Hers is a life of food, a life in service to food. Barbara’s house is crammed with some 2,000 vintage cookbooks. “Who’s counting? I just know I’ve never seen a cookbook I didn’t want.” Once, she and her husband went into a bookstore and she came out without buying a cookbook. “There weren’t any in there I didn’t have,” Barbara told him. “It’s time for you to write one,” her husband replied.
Barbara’s Island Cookbook is a collection of her favorite recipes. It has sold 40,000 copies, many mailed out to stores and other venues from her kitchen table. “I started just doing Rhode Island, but I went on to the rest of the islands — Prudence and Patience, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket. People on the islands like to cook, and they’re creative with what they have.”
Her chowder is salty and of the sea. The johnnycakes come smothered in a creamy white sauce laden with smoked salmon and peas. (She whipped this up at the same time she made the chowder and the cakes.) I leave the house well satisfied, lugging bags of food offerings. “No one ever leaves here empty-handed,” she says. Or hungry.