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American Dietetic Association Cooking Healthy Across America
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-68682-4
Chapter OneNEW ENGLAND Simple, Sturdy Foods
Kitty Broihier, M.S., R.D., and Kristine Napier, M.P.H., R.D.
The simple, sturdy foods of New England reflect both the English origins of our country and the harsh conditions faced by the early colonists. They also speak of tradition, of comfort food, and of one-pot meals. Many traditional recipes that remain Northeastern favorites (indeed, national ones) give us a peek back in time to the days when food was used essentially for simple sustenance. Other enduring recipes attributed to New England cooking originated with northeastern Native American tribes.
Before the Pilgrims
The Wampanoag Nation enjoyed an abundance of food from northeastern forests, fields, streams, and the generous Atlantic Ocean. Indigenous foods included blueberries, cranberries, currants, grapes, persimmons, and strawberries. The three sisters-corn, beans, and squash-had traveled to northeastern lands, and were important ingredients for their sustenance. Game, including the wild turkey, was abundant. The cold, long winters yielded maple syrup, an ingredient which was not available in many other parts of the country. "Forest sugar," as the Indians called it, was the only flavoring they added to foods. They added it to everything from popcorn to meat and boiled fish.
According to lore, maple syrup was discovered when a Native American woman was cooking a pot of moose stew.Too busy to go to the nearby stream for water to add to the stew, she filled her pail with "water" dripping from a nearby tree. When she tasted the finished stew, she found that the meat was in a deliciously sweet and thick syrup instead of gravy. They called the maple trees sheesheegummawis, which means "sap flows fast."
Traditional New England Food with Native American Beginnings
The clambake is thought to originate with the Narragansett and Penobscot tribes, who steamed their clams in beach pits lined with hot rocks and seaweed. After layering clams, crabs, lobster, and corn with seaweed, they covered the pit and allowed the foods to steam for hours.
Succotash, probably the first one-pot meal, was the Narraganset word for "fragments." Native Americans taught colonists up and down the eastern seaboard how to make it by cooking corn and beans together to make an easy, filling meal. In the New England colonies, it was sweetened with maple syrup; in the southern colonies, bear fat flavored the succotash. Sunflower seeds, pine nuts, or other available nuts were used to round out the dish.
Even Boston baked beans probably originated with northeastern Native American tribes who simmered dried beans with maple syrup for days. Today's recipes for baked beans are associated with the city of Boston (still called Bean Town), where colonial Puritan women baked beans on Saturday to avoid cooking on the Sabbath. They served the beans for Saturday dinner and as leftovers for Sunday breakfast and lunch. Boston brown bread, too, was a recipe adapted from local Native Americans, who prepared corn bread by steaming. With time, the colonists made brown bread with a mixture of flours.
New England Colonists Arrive
The Pilgrims had a very lean beginning in America after arriving off Cape Cod in 1620. The growing season was short and the soil peppered with rocks. They were not hunters or fishers.
The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving
By the fall of 1621, their first crops were ready for harvest. At harvest time, the Plymouth colonists invited guests from the Wampanoag Nation for a fall harvest celebration. Their feast (often called the first Thanksgiving) lasted three days. The menu included many foods we know today, including turkey, squash, and corn. It also included codfish and bass, fish that were plentiful in the nearby Atlantic.
According to Plimouth Plantation historians, the first true Thanksgiving didn't come until two years later. The 1621 autumn harvest celebration was not a religious thanksgiving day in the eyes of the Pilgrims. Rather, it was a secular celebration that included games, which would have been unthinkable as part of a religious Thanksgiving. The actual first declared Thanksgiving occurred in 1623, after a providential rain shower saved the colony's crops.
The first cookbook in America, published in 1796, was filled with recipes for foods native to this land. It also included many recipes dating to colonial Thanksgiving, including pumpkin pie and stuffed turkey. The turkey stuffing recipe hasn't changed much from this more than 200-year-old recipe, which called for bread, butter, salt pork, eggs, sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley, sage, and salt (Mom's Stuffing, page 31).
The Colonists Develop "American" Food Ways
During their first century in America, the colonists kept many of their British food ways. Their breakfast mush, or pudding, was characteristic of their morning meals back in England. Wheat did not grow well, though, so they were forced to bake with corn instead. During their first, lean days in America, the colonists made Hasty Pudding-originally made in Britain with flour and other ingredients-using just water and cornmeal. They whisked together the meager, plain ingredients with a birch twig whisk. Often, the raw pudding was wrapped in a loose, floured sack and boiled for several hours. So why were these puddings called hasty if they took so long to cook? Other puddings of the day took up to ten hours to cook. As the pudding steamed in the water, it swelled and filled the sack. Sometimes, puddings were also served with other meals, or as the entire meal when food was sparse. When available, meat became the dominating food in meals, despite the ready availability of fruits and edible greens.
When the New England colonists learned from the Native Americans how to tap maple trees for syrup, they added it to their Hasty Pudding. In later years, when food became more abundant, they added milk, molasses, and eggs.
Breakfast also became more diverse. The colonists started adding cold meat, bread, milk, and fruit pies. Apple pies were their favorite. In winter, they made stacks of pies and froze them in sheds. Each morning, they warmed a frozen pie by the fireplace for breakfast.
Apples were not native to America; the Pilgrims brought the seeds with them. Apple pie, in fact, is a British invention (All-American Apple Pie, page 54). Soon, though, it became a universal American favorite. The poor of New England called it "house pie."
From their Native American neighbors, the British settlers learned how to cultivate and use corn, squash, beans, and cranberries. They made chowders with the vegetables, as their neighbors had; the beans were turned into baking beans and other bean dishes in the Native American way. The colonists took their main meal-what we call dinner or supper-in early afternoon when their labor-intensive chores were finished and they were famished.
Despite the diversity, though, food and cooking in colonial New England remained survivalist in nature, reflecting frontier life that demanded practicality.
Sweets and Whimsical Cookies
Adding sugar to seasonal fruit was a simple way for the colonists to enjoy dessert. The colonists, like their Native American friends, enjoyed many wild fruits. They described the wild strawberries as four times larger than the ones they ate in England. Fruits were stewed with sugar and thickened with a grain (today, we would use cornstarch) to make Flummery, a dessert enjoyed in Britain (Wild Blueberry Sauce, page 62).
New England colonial cooks became known for creating fabulous cookies quickly in a no-nonsense fashion. They are also remembered for the whimsical names they gave to their cookie creations. Jolly Boys, Tangle Breeches, Kinkawoodles, and Snickerdoodles were just some cookies with New England colonial beginnings whose names are just pure fun (Soft Snickerdoodles, page 60). (We do note that while most food historians believe that Snickerdoodles have New England roots, some think the cookies originated in the middle colonies with the Pennsylvania Dutch.)
Approaching the Twentieth Century
Mary J. Lincoln founded the Boston Cooking School in 1879, at least partly in an effort to bring a certain standard of cooking into American homes. Soon, a home economics movement began, and Lincoln's cookbooks became core books in the ensuing curricula. Home economists wanted to improve nutrition and kitchen hygiene in American homes, hoping to apply scientific principles just under development. This home economics movement dovetailed with nutrition science, which was dawning on the science frontier. The first vitamin was discovered just as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth.
Wicked Good Foods in Maine
From Maine-style chowder to whoppie pies, some "wicked good" foods hail from Maine. Ayuh. (That's the Maine way of saying "Uh-huh," "Yep," or "Yes, I agree." Frequently, this statement seems to just appear at the end of peoples' sentences for no apparent reason other than to perhaps indicate that they've finished saying what they wanted to say on that subject.) Let's take a look at two of the absolute best and simplest in the New England tradition: lobster and Maine wild blueberries.
Visit Maine without enjoying at least one lobster dinner and you just haven't visited Maine. Lobster is practically synonymous with the state of Maine, and most people who visit look forward to getting lobster a little cheaper (and a little fresher) than they could in their home state. While some tourists pay to go on lobster boat tours where they can see a day's catch up close, many others don't bother to view live lobsters. Frankly, lobsters aren't that attractive. If you've only seen them cooked, you might be surprised to know that when they're alive, they are an ugly greenish brown color. They don't turn bright orangey red until they're cooked, when the other shell pigments that mask the orange color are destroyed. For some, the fact that lobsters are not particularly attractive at all makes it easier to plunge them into boiling water. For others, seeing them alive makes the cooked product quite inedible later. If you're one of those people, stay out of the kitchen when a lobster is present.
A Brief Maine Lobster History
While lobster is now looked upon by many as a delicacy, it was not always so. Local Native Americans only ate lobster when they couldn't catch any fish, preferring instead to use lobster as fishing bait or as crop fertilizer. The early settlers weren't too fond of lobster, either, considering it to be fit only for the poor. In fact, generally, only indentured servants and prisoners were fed lobster. It's said that during the American Revolution, British prisoners of war threatened to revolt if they had to eat any more lobster. According to information from the Gulf of Maine Aquarium (GMA), servants in Massachusetts even specified in their contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times per week.
By the nineteenth century the opinion about lobster had changed, and the demand from New York and Boston increased. Gathering lobster by hand was abandoned as trap fishing came into existence in Maine around 1850, according to the GMA. Today, Maine is the largest lobster-trapping state in the nation.
Enjoying Lobster, the Maine Way
Getting superfresh lobsters and cooking them at home is wonderful, but so is going to a lobster pound when you don't feel like cooking. Lobster pounds (the name comes from the word impound, as lobsters need to be kept alive while awaiting shipping or delivery) were set up around the turn of the twentieth century so that tourists could buy lobsters, watch them being cooked in large, wood-fired cooking pots, and enjoy them on the spot. The lobster pound protocol requires a good deal of assertiveness, especially if you arrive at the lunch or dinner hour. Be prepared to shout your order over the din of other people placing an order and clanging lobster pots. Order by the weight of the live lobster, or choose the exact spiney creature you want from the tank. Your lobster (and accompaniments such as mussels and corn on the cob) are tied into a string bag and then plunged into boiling water.
Tourists love lobster pounds (as do many native Mainers), and it's no wonder. There's something about the simplicity, the freshness of the lobster, and the ease of eating outside that add up to a very primal, satisfying experience. Eating at a lobster pound is something that every visitor to Maine should experience.
There's much more that can be done with lobster than just boiling it. Mainers are historically a frugal bunch, and since lobster was abundant and many people made their living catching lobsters, there are myriad traditional recipes for using lobster. Many have very simple ingredients, such as lobster stew (a milk-based, thin, chowder-type soup) and lobster rolls (a simple lobster salad served on a grilled hot dog bun with lettuce). Fancier, more complicated "company's coming" recipes also evolved, including such favorites as lobster bisque, baked stuffed lobster, and lobster pie. These days, for fun, there's even an establishment in Bar Harbor, Maine, that features lobster ice cream among its offerings.
The classic Maine lobster bake is a real experience in humble cooking. Mainers don't really cook like this, of course, as it's impractical, but for show (and at occasions such as weddings or conventions) nothing beats the spectacle of a lobster bake. The most traditional method includes digging a big pit on the beach and baking or steaming lobsters, clams, mussels, and corn on the cob over a layer of hot rocks. Seaweed is placed between layers of seafood and corn to provide moisture. Because it's such a time-intensive procedure, not to mention physically demanding, most people hire caterers to do lobster bakes in Maine. Although lobster bakes are not always done the traditional way (on the beach, with the pit, and so on), the results are still delicious. After all, it's hard to go wrong with fresh lobster.
If you've never tasted a wild blueberry, you're in for a melt-in-your-mouth surprise when you do. These tiny berries, one of only four fruits native to North America, are especially flavorful, despite their diminutive size. Unlike cultivated "high bush" blueberries that most people know, wild blueberries seem to explode with flavor. With so much flavor, a few berries go a long way-a small handful is perfectly fine. This is a good thing, because unless you have your own blueberry patch, wild blueberries can be pricey and rather hard to come by, even in Maine.
Excerpted from American Dietetic Association Cooking Healthy Across America Excerpted by permission.
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