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The stories behind some of our favorite holiday recipes...

For these land-locked Utahns, no family holiday is complete without the clam dip

A batch of Aunt Jill's Famous Clam Dip.
Courtesy Rebecca Woolston
A batch of Aunt Jill's Famous Clam Dip.

Entrées seem to steal the spotlight when it comes to holiday menu planning. There’s something special though about an appetizer that lands on the buffet table as everyone waits eagerly for the main event.

“It's a bit more of a relaxing environment where you're talking to a lot of different people at once instead of just chatting with the people next to you at a seated gathering,” said KUER listener Rebecca Woolston of Murray. “I think (appetizers are) really fun and a priority to me in any holiday meal.”

When Woolston was a teenager, an unexpected clam dip made a big impression. Keep in mind, that this is land-locked Utah. Two decades later, she still remembers her first warm bite of the clam dip her Aunt Jill Snyder brought to a large family dinner.

“It was life-changing,” Woolston said of the salty, chunky yet creamy concoction. “It was just a flavor sensation that was very exciting for me.”

Woolston had had cold chip dips before. But a baked cheesy dip served with pieces of bread to dredge into it? That was something new, “a delicious surprise,” as she called it.

Rebecca Woolston
Courtesy Rebecca Woolston
Rebecca Woolston

Again, it’s 590 miles as the crow flies southwest to the nearest ocean, so canned clams are just the ticket. To that, you’ll add cream cheese, scallions and lemon juice. Woolston has come to believe it’s precisely the right appetizer to bring guests together.

Today the clam dip has pride of place at holiday meals — if Woolston has anything to do with it. But there was one gathering when Uncle Larry Snyder was in charge of the dip.

“I didn't really know him to be someone who spent a lot of time in the kitchen, so it was a little nerve-wracking to me,” Woolston said.

Uncle Larry assured everyone he could handle the recipe. When she arrived, Woolston was worried when she saw the oven wasn’t on. Finally, she spotted the dip.

“There's a little bowl covered with tinfoil on a table,” she said. “He had been confused and thought it was a cold chip dip.”

He mixed the ingredients but did not bake them. Instead of bread, he had a bag of potato chips to go alongside.

“I don't doubt that tears were shed,” Woolston said. “And my mom was so sad for us that she said this will never happen again.”

Thanksgiving was safe this year as Woolston said her sister “made her classic double batch.” And you can take it to the bank it’ll be there for Christmas too since they take turns on who makes it

“I'd say probably we go through four to six cans of clams a year,” Woolston said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Do clams make the dip taste fishy? 

Rebecca Woolston: No, no, not at all. You know that there's something in there, but they're chopped so fine. If someone told me it was something else, I'd believe them. I wouldn't necessarily think, “Oh, this is definitely clams.”

PM: Utah isn’t known for seafood, how did Aunt Jill end up making clam dip? 

RW: She works at a salon in Cedar City. She was working with a gal in the 1980s who gave her the recipe. Jill had been making it for years. It was her appetizer contribution to our family Thanksgiving.

PM: When it was first served, did you want to get in there before everyone else gobbled it down?

RW: Exactly. Back then, she only made one batch. Now we do double batches because we know we need to. The interesting part of it is that it's just baked in a casserole dish. Pre-COVID days, we would all just take bread and dig into the one pot. You really did have to get in there physically — shove elbows, whatever you needed to do if you wanted to get some before it was gone. One batch at a large family gathering of 35, 40 people, you're lucky if you get one or two bites.

PM: It sounds like everyone's behaved now and everyone knows that they have to sit gracefully and await the clam dip.

RW: One year we traveled to Austin and did an Airbnb. Most of us were in the kitchen, but we'd started putting the appetizers out on the dining room table. My niece was two and a half at that time. She had just found the clam dip and she put her hands straight into it and was getting it by the handfuls.

Jill Snyder’s Famous Clam Dip

2 - 8 oz softened cream cheese
2 cans minced clams, 1 drained
6-8 diced green scallions
1 t. Salt
3 T. Lemon juice
Dried parsley
Shepherd’s bread, hollowed

Mix all ingredients in place inside the bread. Wrap in aluminum foil. Bake three hours at 225 degrees.

Rebecca Woolston’s note: Her family often bakes the dip in a glass dish insead and serves it with bread. (“We don’t want to waste any of the dip on bread that doesn’t get eaten!” she said”)

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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