It’s been a strange summer but some things are still as they should be, like the clam cakes and chowder at Aunt Carrie’s, the local eatery celebrating its 100th anniversary. While a lot has changed in the years since Carrie Cooper opened her lemonade stand near the Point Judith Light, some things have remained the same, a testament to quality food and the strength of family bonds.
The summer tourist camp that drew Carrie and her husband, Ulysses, and their six children from Connecticut — who all packed into a Model-T for the drive to Narragansett — may no longer exist, but the ocean coastline remains as idyllic as ever. The view from Aunt Carrie’s restaurant, which Ulysses built in 1920, is the same a century later: a stretch of grass lined with hydrangeas overlooking marshland formed of tall green reeds, all backed by the blue vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
On an afternoon in mid-July, a familiar sea breeze wafts through open windows, ruffling lace curtains, and cooling the dining room, which is still painted the same shade of bright yellow trimmed with dark green, where steamers have the same slightly salty taste with just a hint-of-sand crunch. Servers may now ring up orders on iPads, but the communal element of the space remains intact.
In 1953, Carrie Cooper’s daughter Gertrude took over the restaurant with her husband, William Foy, who she met working there one summer. In 1964, the Foys expanded the kitchen, which is divided into areas for baking beloved goods like raisin bread and apple pie, and also for preparing and serving seafood dishes like steamed clams and Point Judith Lobster.
Gertrude and William Foy ran the joint until 1984, when they handed it over to their son, Bill, and his wife, Elsie, who also met working there one summer. Bill died in 1994, and Elsie Foy continued running the restaurant with the help of her daughters and son-in-law. These days, she’s taken a step back, and Amy Foy, her eldest daughter, is the head baker while her other daughter, Laura Perron, has taken over the managerial responsibilities and her husband, Phillip Perron, has become kitchen manager. Some days, their daughters, Ember, 7, and Willow, 9, can be found helping around the kitchen, topping lids of red cocktail sauce and assisting their aunt with the baking. The girls are the great-great granddaughters of Carrie Cooper and the fifth generation of the family business.
Other family members also work as waitresses, and mingling with staff who are part of an extensive community of employees who feel like family. For Elsie Foy, this familial culture of the restaurant is what has enabled it to flourish all these years. All told, that network includes thousands of people, many of whom worked several summers and often return, she said.
For many, working at Aunt Carrie’s is their first real job, and Elsie Foy is no exception. She started working at the restaurant at the age of 16, joining her sister. She recalled that her parents trusted them when they were with the Aunt Carrie’s crew, and that her first summer there marked her first summer spent out and about with friends. They would enjoy days off together and hang out whenever they weren’t working. She recalls that Gertrude Foy, at the time her boss and not yet her mother-in-law, would make hot dogs for the young folk as they gathered around campfires on the beach, and later leave work at midnight and join them all for a swim.
That first summer, Elsie worked at the take out window, and Bill Foy worked in the kitchen, making clam cakes. “When you’re 16 there’s lots of flirting that goes on,” Foy said, a bit demurely, suggesting that a decent amount of eye contact was exchanged with each announcement of a new order. One thing led to another and soon enough they had cooked up a romance.
There have been “lots and lots of love stories,” and more than a few resulting marriages between employees, Foy said. She knows of a trio of sisters who worked there, two of whom married men they met at the restaurant. All three of those sisters, who each had three children, have sent their offspring to work at Aunt Carrie’s. Another family Foy knows had eleven children, ten of whom worked at the restaurant. And one of those children is married to a current assistant manager.
“There are so many of these stories and it just makes us smile,” Foy said. She’s also heard countless tales of first dates and engagements, of couples who return for anniversaries, or of people who bring back grandchildren, to show them where they worked when they were young.
One such couple is Brian and Jessica Pernicone, who met at Aunt Carrie’s as teenagers and then reconnected years later, eventually getting married. Jessica’s brother and sister both worked at the restaurant, as did Brian’s mother and sister. Jessica remains close with Elsie Foy, and was on the planning committee for this year’s anniversary festivities, most of which had to be canceled or postponed, like the gathering of employees past and present meant to be held this fall, which they hope will take place sometime in 2021.
Heidi Lessard is another former Aunt Carrie’s employee whose life changed forever thanks to her time at the business. She started working at Aunt Carrie’s in the summer of 1975 at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of her sister, who started there as a waitress the summer before. Lessard would go on to work there for 21 years, putting herself through college at The University of Rhode Island, and eventually training new waitresses.
“I’m still friends with some of the waitresses I met,” she recalled recently by phone, “we get together once a month.” While some of those meetups have been on pause lately because of social distancing, the group remains close, and consists of about ten people who live around the state. A lot of those friends went on to have children who also worked at the restaurant.
“We’ve all stayed in touch with Elsie,” Lessard noted, “she’s part of our group.”
Lessard recalls that the restaurant used to close on Tuesdays, which meant the staff would spend the day hanging out, and on days when some had afternoon shifts, everyone would meet at the beach in the morning. The bonds formed during those summers remain, a testament to the community of the restaurant that has the feel of an extended family, Lessard said.
“It was a good crew,” she recalled fondly, adding that Gertrude and William Foy were no exception. “They were great people. They never asked anyone to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.”
In fact, Lessard still practices some of the things she learned as a teenage waitress. “I never just get up from a table without pushing my chair in,” she said, with a laugh, explaining that habit reminds her, to this day, of Gertrude Foy.
After 45 years of meals at Aunt Carries, Lessard still loves the clam cakes, chowder and raisin bread best — all of which reflect original recipes.
Now, Amy Foy, Elsie Foy’s eldest daughter and Aunt Carrie’s great granddaughter, is the head baker, arriving at the restaurant around 6 a.m. to make the raisin bread and prepare the pies, all from scratch.
“For my one carb of the day, I get a piece of raisin bread for breakfast,” Elsie Foy said, laughing. That recipe has been around since she started working there in the 1960s, and hasn’t changed much since. The apple pie, Indian pudding, and white sandwich bread are other longtime staples, along with the breading mixture used to coat the fish.
“It’s old South County standard recipes that we use,” Elsie Foy said. As the story goes, Carrie Cooper used her original corn fritter recipe to develop her clam cake recipe, which is still used today. It takes about five minutes to fry each cake, and the result is something billowy, crispy, buttery, a dark golden brown on the outside and a doughy beige on the inside which is, of course, speckled with clams. They pair well with chowder, which was the other staple that launched Carrie Cooper from neighborhood chef to local restaurateur. Today the chowder comes in three varieties and is severed in a mug, with a side of oyster crackers.
The summer crew has increased over the years, and now there are between 100 and 120 people who work there, including the staff at the ice cream window and gift shop, which are just across from the restaurant. In the shop, visitors can purchase Aunt Carrie’s clam cake mix, t-shirts, and also a seasonal ornament, which this year reflects the 100th anniversary. Another item marking the centennial year: a special beer brewed in partnership with Shaidzon Beer Co. in West Kingston, which created a custom Aunt Carrie’s brew using lemondrop hops. The beer pairs as perfectly with the clam cakes as the chowder.
“It’s a family affair,” Lessard said, summarizing both the work environment and cultural ethos. “It’s just a nice place to work.”