To most people, New England cuisine begins with good fish. With four centuries of maritime tradition behind it, seafood has pride of place in New England kitchens—where any fish (crustaceans and mollusks, too, for that matter) can and will be expertly prepared, often with little more than a lemon wedge for garnish. Some of these dishes (such as boiled cod or fish with oatmeal) put economy ahead of flavor, but some of the most economical foods were also the most delicious. Consider a hot batch of savory fish balls or fish cakes, made with seasoned mashed potato to stretch the fish and fried until crisp and golden brown. It’s a comfort food that connects generations.
In the early 20th century, seafood consumption peaked during Lent, the 40-day period before Easter, when many Catholics fasted and abstained from meat. Because New England had the largest Catholic population in the country at that time, the area’s newspapers and magazines offered an annual batch of recipes for turning meatless meals into magic with Lenten-approved dishes such as (quoting from Yankee’s recipe archive here) cheese tarts with shrimp, cashew-stuffed red snapper, and whiskery codfish balls. An inexpensive favorite, those deep-fried balls got their furry moniker thanks to the “crisp little tendrils of salt cod whispering out from their salty potato interiors.”
Cod, fresh or salted, has historically been the most popular fish in New England, lending its name to Cape Cod, hanging in holy wooden form over the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and prompting food historian Clementine Paddleford to give it special mention in How America Eats, her 1960 ode to regional cooking. “Beans and brown bread make the Saturday night menus,” she wrote after visiting Boston, “but the cod is kept sacred. It shows up everywhere.” Today, cod stocks (“noblest of the finny families”) have radically diminished, and many have taken it off their menus.
Although Lenten dietary restrictions and an abundant supply may not be the driving forces behind today’s fish consumption, there are still plenty of reasons to break out the chowder pot and tartar sauce. Whether it’s in celebration of our seafaring heritage, in support of New England fishermen, or in response to campaigns like “Meatless Monday” encouraging personal and planetary health, there are as many delicious, eco-friendly dishes to enjoy today as there are … well … you know the rest.
A cousin to codfish balls, which are deep-fried, fish cakes are patted out and fry up wonderfully in the pan—easier to prepare and a bit healthier, too. We’ve substituted the more-sustainable hake for the traditional cod, but any firm white fish will work. Double the recipe to feed a crowd or freeze half for later.