History

The Challenge of New England Cooking | Humor

It’s not easy to overcome a culinary reputation established over centuries, but here at Yankee, we’re doing our best.

By Judson D. Hale

Nov 01 2017

Stockpot of New England Boil

New England Boiled Dinner.

Photo Credit : Thinkstock
Yes, yes, it’s all changed now—thanks in no small measure to Yankee magazine’s fabulous food articles, food photography and recipes. But it wasn’t always so. In my young days, people would, when asked their impression of New England cooking, immediately refer to “the New England boiled dinner” which is pretty much simply corned beef and cabbage, along with a few boiled potatoes. Fortunately, those preparing a New England boiled dinner today are more cognizant of good taste and health than during those long-ago days when New England’s food reputation was being established. For instance, a Rhode Island traveler in 1704, as recorded in Richard Hooker’s book Food and Drink in America, described one cook’s corned beef as having been “boil’d in her dye kettle.” He went on to say, “I, being hungry, got a little down; but my stomach was soon cloy’d and what cabbage I swallowed serv’d me for a Cudd the whole day after.”
New England Boiled Dinner.
New England Boiled Dinner.
Photo Credit : Thinkstock
No doubt New England whalers should take some of the blame. The fact that they abided for months on end the meals served aboard their ships can be interpreted to mean they knew no better, either at sea or at home. One of the everyday foods enjoyed (or tolerated) on whaling ships was something called “duff.” It consisted of a quantity of flour, moistened with equal parts of salt and fresh water, and stirred together with a lot of “slush” or lard, as well as yeast. The entire doughy mixture was then boiled in a bag until, as one whaleman’s journal records, “it can be dropped from a topgallant cross stress upon the deck without breaking.” Another reference to duff describes it as “not only indigestible, but difficult to masticate and more fit to be used as a shot for storming ports and towns than to be eaten.” Furthermore, if mental associations have something to do with taste, then New England’s choice of names for some of its dishes has been let’s say, unfortunate. Leaf through some of the old-time New England recipe books and you’ll find the likes of Mud Pie, Burnt Leather Cake, Bumpy Stew, Nameless and Lazy White Pickles. One notices innumerable mistakes in these old recipe books, too. Typical is a recipe I found in a nineteenth century Vermont cookbook for making a lemon-cheese sandwich. Trouble was, it neglected to include the cheese. Thus the reader was left with two damp, sour pieces of bread. It did nothing much to enhance New England’s culinary reputation. Today, Yankee’s editors test each recipe and proof-read again and again, virtually eliminating any mistakes. Unlike in my early days, when I remember, for instance, the time our printer left out a most important word in a rhubarb jam recipe. The word: “sugar.” So instead of creating jam, our readers found themselves with a sort of astringent rhubarb soup, which prompted one disgruntled New Hampshire lady to add a postscript to her letter pointing out the omission of sugar. “All your recipes,” she wrote, “give me gas.” I recall writing her back, saying “I’m so sorry.” (What else could I say?) Well, Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And do check out some of the scrumptious recipes in the latest issues of Yankee magazine. We’ve come a long way, baby… Listen to Jud: