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New England Cuisine

The six American states in the far northeast of the country—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—are known as New England. Four of the six have extensive seacoasts; all six share a common heritage dating back to settlements of Puritan immigrants from the British Isles during the first half of the seventeenth century. Further waves of immigration, particularly of Portuguese speaking peoples in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and of Italians, Poles and other peoples, have added great depth to New England cooking, but the directness and no-frills nature of the original settlers continues to shine through in an array of basic dishes.

New England generates two stereotypical cultural images in the American imagination; The sea is primary—the tough fisherman, the fishing boat, the lighthouse. The other image stems from inland New England—gentle hills decked with multi-colored autumn leaves, rustic farms, covered bridges. Both maritime and inland areas of New England have food traditions. Since the area became the source for great migrations through the entire northern tier of the United States all the way to the Pacific coast, its food-ways have had a great deal of influence on other areas of the country.

Soft-shell steamer clams and clam chowder may be the New England dishes that come to mind first for many Americans. Steamer clams are a messy business. The clams are quickly boiled in water and aromatic vegetables until they pop open. The broth may then be used as a basis for a rich clam chowder, with additions of vegetables, corn, potatoes, butter, flour and possibly milk or cream. (It is important to differentiate the white “New England” clam chowder from the red, tomato-based “Manhattan” clam chowder, a more recent invention.) Mussels, oysters, shrimp, scallops and all sorts of fresh fish, simply prepared, are also popular. The influence of people from Portuguese speaking areas, which began early in the region’s history and continues today with immigration from areas as diverse as Africa’s Cape Verde Islands and Brazil, only adds to New England’s seafood orientation.

Lobster in all forms is strongly associated with the region. The lobster roll—simply lobster meat with a dressing like mayonnaise served on a soft frankfurter-type roll—is a perennial favorite, particularly at informal seaside restaurants all over the region. Serious lobster eaters will attack boiled or steamed lobsters wearing bibs to protect their clothing from the squirting juices; special utensils assist in cracking the bones and picking out the hard-to-reach meat. The Parker House Hotel in Boston, the region’s largest city, serves an exquisite lobster bisque, a rich, cream-based soup. (The hotel, the oldest in the United States, is also the home of the original “Parker House Rolls,” “Boston Cream Pie,” and the use of the term “scrod” for various fish filets.)

The “New England Boiled Dinner” is simplicity itself. Though there are as many recipes for this dish as there are for clam chowder, the Boiled Dinner is essentially a big hunk of corned beef, uncut, simmered with potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions and cabbage for several hours until tender, then served with mustard or horseradish.

Boston baked beans are enjoyed in various incarnations all over the United States (one of Boston’s nicknames is, in fact, “Bean-Town,” so strong is the association). Again, a dish with many variations, the essence is the slow-cooking of beans in molasses. This requires a good overnight soak for the dried navy or pinto beans, then a slow-cook of at least three hours, if not all day. Boston was a great center for the importation of West Indian molasses and sugar, from which rum was produced. The city’s, perhaps the nation’s, oddest disaster occurred in 1919 when a molasses holding tank exploded, smothering 21 people and injuring 150 in the ensuing flood of the sticky sweet liquid. Food does have its dangers.

The cranberry, a tart fruit that is often sweetened and is heavily associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving in November, grows in many parts of New England. Inland New England, particularly landlocked Vermont and nearly-landlocked New Hampshire, has its own traditions. The region’s dairy industry produces excellent cheeses, particularly cheddar. Local maple syrup flavors many a dish, and is probably the reason Americans in all regions prefer glazes on hams, syrup on pancakes, candied yams for holidays. Apples abound and find their way into ciders and rustic pies. Succotash, a combination of lima beans, corn and salt pork, is distinctly New England. Traditional English boiled puddings add local ingredients like corn and plentiful imported ingredients like molasses to create what are now New England heritage dishes. The rustic country inns that dot the region often serve these specialties.