Yankee Culinary Ingenuity
When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there wasn’t a diner in sight. These immigrants arrived too late in the season to establish crops, and likely would’ve perished if not for the Native Americans. We all know the story of the bountiful harvest the next year and the communal thanksgiving meal they shared. In fact, some of the same foods the Native Americans shared became the mainstays of the New World diet; turkey and other fowl, game, pumpkins and squash, corn, clams, oysters, lobsters, crabs — all the makings of a modern New England feast.
All regional American cuisine came from a distinctive coupling of the indigenous foods available in the neighborhood, imported animals, plants and seeds, and recipes and customs brought from the Old Worlds of Europe, Asia and Africa. Fast forward to the current culinary climate, and many New England favorites are descended from that first Thanksgiving. Other foods, such as beef, potatoes and vegetables, were introduced by subsequent generations. Today, New Englanders enjoy a varied and bountiful array of fine foods from land and sea.
Early colonists were amazed at the plentiful oyster beds along the Atlantic shore, yielding year-round access to these nutrient-rich delicacies. Many different varieties of the same Atlantic species developed unique flavor profiles from their environment (See related oyster article in this issue). Most oyster lovers prefer to eat them raw, on the half-shell.
Folks will drive for miles to dine on their favorite clam chowder. Many restaurants in New England are renowned for their chowder reputation alone. Thought to have originated with Breton fishermen in Newfoundland, the dish migrated south to New England. The basic recipe contains clams, potatoes, onions, broth, cream, butter and seasonings. Sometimes salt pork or bacon is added. It is a mortal sin to add tomatoes to chowder in New England, but Manhattan clam chowder is made with tomatoes.
Lobster is considered the chateaubriand of seafood. For lobster lovers who want a quick and meaty treat without the shell cracking and picking, there’s the Lobster Roll. There are several methods of preparation, both hot and cold. Delectable chunks of cooked lobster are mixed with melted butter and/or a little mayonnaise. This mixture is heaped into a slit cut into the top of buttery toasted Frankfurt rolls.
Thrifty New Englanders utilized cooking methods that ensured lesser cuts of beef would be tender and flavorful. Yankee Pot Roast begins with a chuck or other roast, which is seared in a heavy pot atop the stove, seasoned and simmered or roasted with onion, garlic and stock for several hours at lower temperatures. Carrots and potatoes are added to round out the meal. Chefs cater to tradition with this classic, sometimes jazzing it up with tomato paste, herbs and spices, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas.
Also known as corned beef and cabbage, no self-respecting restaurant would be caught without this menu item on St. Patrick’s Day. Did you know that there is actually no corn in corned beef? The word “corn” in old English referred to grains or kernels. Since rock salt was used to cure corned beef, and resembled kernels of grain, “corn” was applied.
Traditionally prepared and eaten on the beach, this meal is an occasion in itself. A pit is dug, lined with flat stones. A wood fire is built atop the stones. When the stones are glowing hot, the ashes are brushed in between the stones. A layer of wet seaweed comes next, then lobsters, steamers, mussels, quahogs, potatoes, corn on the cob, carrots, onions and sometimes sausages. Alternating layers of seaweed and food are mounded up, and the entire pit is covered with canvas that’s been drenched in seawater. The food is left to steam for several hours. Some restaurants and caterers specialize in clam bakes.