When I started researching New England’s regional foodways, I was puzzled by the number of “traditional New England foods” that no one seems to actually eat, much less cook: Boston brown bread and baked beans, clam cakes, Indian pudding, New England boiled dinner. Apart from clam chowder and lobster, most of the foods on the lists that waft around the internet and in-flight magazines seem to be culinary ghosts, wispy remnants of a cuisine that can’t quite die.
In other parts of the U.S., regional foods like gumbo, red beans and rice, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, gooey butter cake, barbecue and chili are eaten at home, at restaurants, at picnics, ball games, potlucks, church suppers – pretty much anywhere people gather to eat together. There are theme restaurants all over the country selling Tex-Mex, New York-style pizza, poké bowls from Hawaii. Some foods are a little harder sell outside the region, like Minnesota hot dish, but they’re popular, part of the background noise of everyday life. In the case of hot dish, the Minnesota congressional delegation has an annual hot dish contest, where representatives have fun with ingredients and names that reflect their districts’ immigrant communities in their districts for recipes with titles like “Hot Dish A-Hmong Friends,” “From Monrovia with Love: Liberian Inspired Hotdish” and “Little Moga-hot-dishu” – as well as “From Cheese to Shining Cheese Hotdish.”
Here in New England, we don’t have that kind of affection for baked beans—most commonly eaten from a supermarket can—or Indian pudding, or even Boston brown bread, which is a giant molasses muffin. I began to wonder why and how these foods came to represent New England, but not the people who actually cook and eat in New England.
What I found is that most of the “traditional” foods on these lists were aggressively promoted as symbols of New England ca. 1860-1900. At a time when millions of immigrants arrived in the region from Quebec, Italy, Poland, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cape Verde, and dozens of other countries, New England’s food froze. “New England Kitchens” complete with butter churns and spinning wheels were set up as attractions to raise funds for Brooklyn Civil War relief groups and Ohio churches. They served baked beans, pumpkin pie, and nostalgia, celebrating the country life when most New England residents lived and worked in cities. By 1900, most butter in the region was churned in Vermont factories serving dozens, if not hundreds of dairies, and shipped to Boston by train.
New England-based reformers like Ellen H. Swallow Richards also promoted many of these “traditional” foods. Richards and a swath of Boston-based benefactors believed firmly in teaching immigrants to cook mushy, bland, inexpensive food, under the mistaken impression that spices provoke dyspepsia, and fruits and vegetables are mere indulgences (unfortunately, the existence of vitamins was not firmly established until after 1900).
In the 1890’s, Richards opened a public kitchen to serve cheap carry-out food in Boston’s North End, a neighborhood primarily populated by recent immigrants from Italy. Her menus largely consisted of beef broth, pea soup, fish, clam, and corn chowders, succotash, creamed codfish, corn mush, boiled hominy, oatmeal mush, cracked wheat, baked beans, and Indian pudding — all prepared with as little salt, pork, fat, and sugar as possible. Several of these dishes appear on lists of “New England” foods.
North End residents didn’t find this regimen particularly compelling. The New England Kitchen closed after a few years due to lack of demand – but Richards went on to become the first president of the American Home Economics Association, and spread her principles of joy-free, practical nourishment around the nation.
If Richards hadn’t promoted Indian pudding, would anyone still know what it is? Richards likely influenced the immensely popular Boston Cooking School Cookbook, later known as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which in 1912 featured recipes for both Indian pudding and “Mock Indian pudding.”
We do have some idea of what people who actually lived in New England were eating while people were enjoying Ye Olde New England Kitchens in other states. Social workers put together “dietaries” for poor factory workers in cities, children and grandchildren of immigrants reminisced about their families’ traditions, and city folk who swept off to Vermont in the 1890’s to board at quaint farms for the summer complained about what they were served by farmer’s wives who mistakenly assumed that they wished to share the farm family’s meals.
They weren’t eating long-boiled puddings suited to stay-at-home wives tending a wood fire. Most people ate bread, butter, meat that could be cooked quickly in a frying pan, and gingerbread, or whatever their boarding houses served (frequently corned beef and cabbage). The farmers’ wives served tough beef and pies made with dried apples and prunes—not the fresh berries and cream the city visitors felt entitled to. Immigrants made a panopoly of dishes ranging from barley soup to sauerkraut and kapusta to fried artichokes.
Still, tourist offices, web sites, and cookbook publishers persist in the view that real “New England” food consists of dishes that Victorian women thought represented the 18th century, when Aunt Hepzibah and Uncle Ezekiel sat by the fire spinning and whittling – conveniently ignoring the contributions of people like Duchess Quamino, a colonial-era Rhode Island slave who bought her freedom by baking plum cakes. In a contemporary example of cultural myopia, for decades, the majority of people working in New England orchards have been seasonal workers and immigrants from Jamaica, yet we still see publications like 2016 The New England Orchard Cookbook which features a recipe for Moroccan Peach Roasted Chicken, but not a single food prepared by or for the people who actually pick the fruit.
New England currently has substantial populations of migrants from Puerto Rico, and immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. There are intriguing synergies and fusions to be explored, with local foods and ingredients and techniques from beyond the region – which is also a New England tradition. New England’s 18th-century ship captains imported ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, tamarinds, even pepper all the way from Sumatra.
Can the convention bureaus, bloggers, and inflight magazine writers admit that New England contains people whose families weren’t here in 1776, and that they have foodways and traditions that are worthy of being celebrated? Can we get a New England cookbook that includes the people who produce our food? Or will we continue to celebrate an imaginary all-white past?
Meg Muckenhoupt is a freelance writer and author of Cabbage: A Global History, among others. Her work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide; her book Boston Gardens and Green Spaces is a Boston Globe Local Bestseller. Her latest book The Truth about Baked Beans: An Edible History of New England is now available from NYU Press.