By James C. O’Connell,
Author of Dining Out in Boston
Most New Englanders assume that traditional regional cooking has been around since colonial times. Yet it was not until the twentieth century, that restaurants explicitly featured these dishes. Earlier menus did not make a fuss about serving specialties like “New England clam chowder” or “Boston cream pie.” The widespread celebration of New England cooking started with the Colonial Revival movement in the early 1900s. The movement championed the Puritan and Revolutionary Era heritage of New England, particularly through preserving historic buildings and designing decorative arts in a Colonial Revival style.
New England restaurants started to feature “Yankee” pot roast, “Boston” baked beans, and “New England” boiled dinner. The dining ritual of Thanksgiving dinner became entrenched. It was a simple meal of roast turkey and the homely accompaniments of dressing, potatoes, and root vegetables. Cranberry sauce became the traditional fruit relish. The feast concluded with an array of pies, those all-purpose dishes from colonial days. Thanksgiving embodied Pilgrim frugality, which self-reliant Americans adopted as they carved out civilization from the frontier.
In America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald observed: “In foods as in so many other cultural expressions, the domineering, once-dominant Yankees, through their own unique blend of myth and magic—brilliantly disguised as an aversion to myth and a disavowal of magic—attempted to create normative America out of plain, frugal New England.” New England cooking conveyed a sense of romance connected with the Pilgrims and the Minutemen.
It is telling that lowly baked beans became such an iconic food. Boston was nicknamed “Beantown,” and the National League baseball franchise between 1883 and 1906 was known as the “Beaneaters.” Baked beans were subsistence food going back to England and medieval cookery. During Puritan times, beans were baked on Saturday to be eaten after church on the Sabbath, when the hearth was cold. Pieces of salted meat were added to the bean stew. By the nineteenth century, salt fat pork was added to white pea beans, and, by the last quarter of the century, molasses became an ingredient. A traditional accompaniment of baked beans was brown bread. Boston brown bread was made from rye and cornmeal steamed in a pudding tin. By the mid-nineteenth century, molasses and, sometimes, raisins, were added. In another generation, brown bread and baked beans had become iconic foods.
It took awhile for Indian pudding and corn bread to become New England standbys. When the Puritans arrived, they brought with them a predilection for wheat and rye. Rye was easy to grow in New England, but wheat was not. The Puritans considered cornmeal an inferior grain, but corn grew easily and was versatile, so the colonists eventually adopted it. Cornmeal (which often was called simply “Indian” or “Injun”) was made into a pudding, mixed with milk and, later, molasses, berries, or raisins. In the colonial era, puddings were eaten as the main course at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and only became a restaurant dessert in the nineteenth century.
It is surprising that Indian pudding has persisted at traditional New England restaurants into the twenty-first century while other traditional desserts, like corn starch pudding, hasty pudding, and Tipsey cake, have disappeared. Corn bread (which many think of as a Southern dish) was a traditional food item, which evolved into a regional specialty. It is still served in such landmark restaurants as Durgin-Park and Jacob Wirth.
Seafood that is celebrated in contemporary Boston did not originally hold the spotlight. Although oysters were wildly popular, clams, lobsters, and white finfish were not. Fish-eating was looked down upon as a Roman Catholic practice. The poorest quality cod ended up feeding the black slaves of the Caribbean.
Chowder, which was a thick mix of fish, clams, salt pork, and potatoes, was prepared at home, but not much in restaurants. After 1900, milk was added, creating “New England” chowder. It became a Friday restaurant dish, when Catholic abstinence and Yankee chauvinism enshrined chowder as a regional staple. By the 1920s, clam chowder achieved primacy over fish chowder, probably because canned clams were more convenient to incorporate into chowder than varieties of finfish.
Lobsters took a long time to become a delicacy. Since colonial times, lobsters had been cheap and abundant. They were considered inferior food and were often served to prisoners. Sometimes lobsters were incorporated into pies, stews, fricassees, and salads. When canning was introduced in the late nineteenth century, lobster meat became available in tins. During the twentieth century, lobsters became upscale food served broiled, stuffed, thermidor, or à la Newburg.
Culinary historians Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, in Eating in America: A History, argued that Boston’s seafood dishes had culinary merit: “A unique quality of the historic restaurants of Boston is that almost all of them were dedicated to the New England cuisine, in contrast to New York’s famous eating places, which kowtowed to the prestige of French cooking. Valid gastronomic traditions are almost invariably built around foods locally available, and this was the case for Boston, whose seafood has always been important on its restaurant menus.”
As interest in New England cooking grew, Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House, which had been ordinary eateries in the nineteenth century, became major tourist destinations. Lucius Beebe, bon vivant and café society columnist for the New York Herald Tribune and Gourmet Magazine ranked Durgin-Park among the country’s leading restaurants. In Boston and the Boston Legend (1935), he maintained that:
Durgin and Park’s is not a restaurant; it is a dining-room in the old New England manner. … You do not dine in the gourmet’s sense there, but you feed magnificently. The bill of fare is long: there are about 15 cuts of steak, and the food simple. An impressive baked potato, buttered and salted to perfection, and a kind of hot tea cake—the specialty of the house—come with every order whether a patron indicates them or not. Usually he indicates a preference for more.
The eatery’s main clientele were food market men, quite different from today’s tourist customers. Durgin-Park opened at 4:00 AM and served pie for breakfast. It closed by 8:00 PM. According to Beebe, “patrons sit at long boards as in an ordinary, and in the center of the room the cooks do things with meat and fish and vegetables directly under the professional and highly critical gaze of experienced dealers in these very commodities.” Beebe played up the reputation of the waitresses as incorrigible characters: “The waitresses are great blowsy girls, all good teeth, smiles and affability, with notions of their own as to what patrons ought to eat and ideas of table service that would make the hair of a French waiter captain stand up on his head. Durgin’s is old New England eating at its worst and best.”
Lucius Beebe also waxed eloquent about the Union Oyster House, comparing it to Paris’s Tour D’Argent. He maintained that “the Union Oyster House has been a cathedral, or more properly speaking, a chapel of seafood, its high altar the oyster bar, its acolytes and priests the white-coated experts who deftly render available and edible its Cotuits and Little Necks, its worshippers the patrons whose mouths water and whose nostrils quiver at the salt odor of lobster broiling on a coal fire in its kitchens.” The house specialties were raw oysters, lobster stew, and clam chowder.
As travel accounts and guidebooks about Boston proliferated, the reputation of the local food increased. In 1959, Chinese travel writer Chiang Yee, in The Silent Traveller in Boston, wrote that “Boston is perhaps the only city in America to have its name attached to a number of foods,” referring to Boston baked beans, cod, clam chowder and fish chowder. Chiang Yee made the rounds of the city’s most famous restaurants. He described the long queue at Durgin-Park, where he was served “a big plate with two huge slices of roast beef and many other things on it. By the time I had eaten the first slice my eagerness for food was damped.” A “buxom” waitress observed his waning interest in the food, saying: “‘What’s the matter, young man? Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t, you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.’” She laughed at her joke, then foisted upon him a strawberry shortcake. Chiang Yee went on to eat lobster at the Union Oyster House, where he wore a paper bib imprinted with the image of a red lobster. He sampled roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Locke-Ober and Parker House rolls and sautéed codfish tongues and cheeks at the Parker House.
The Colonial Revival celebration of traditional New England cooking gave birth to a multitude of neo-traditional inns across New England. These inns were redecorated to fit the aesthetics of the 1920s and 1930s, which cleaned up the designs of centuries past. Most country inns had been shabby hostelries, but they were redesigned to appear like the sort of inn where George Washington might have slept.
Author Mary Harrod Northend romanticized operating twentieth-century inns in We Visit Old Inns (1925): “Here and there around the room were gate-legged, square and rood tables, each one of the old-time tavern type, surrounded by Windsor chairs. Following the custom of olden days, homespun linen covered every table, while maids costumed in aprons and caps of the seventeenth century moved gracefully back and forth as they set the table for our coming repast… The supper was delicious, and how we enjoyed the old-fashioned food served as it was in our ancestors’ time!”
Traditional New England inns were tremendously popular between the 1920s and 1960s. They were special occasion, white tablecloth restaurants, where diners dressed up. Guidebook pioneer Duncan Hines loved the inns around Boston. In his 1941 guidebook, he recommended more than a dozen of them, praising their décor as much as their food. One of the exemplars was the Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury. Howe’s Tavern in Sudbury claimed to be the oldest operating inn in America, having been opened in 1716. In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave Howe’s Tavern a new prominence when he set his poetry collection “Tales of a Wayside Inn” there. Henry Ford acquired the historic inn in 1923. Longfellow’s Wayside Inn still serves such Colonial Revival dishes as “Traditional” Yankee pot roast, roast turkey with cornbread and sausage stuffing and giblet gravy, deep dish apple pie, and “Homemade” Indian pudding.
Historic inns clustered in other Revolutionary Era towns west of Boston. Hartwell Farm on Route 2A (The Battle Road) in Lincoln was located in a seventeenth-century farmhouse, conjuring up memories of the beginnings of the American Revolution. Concord’s Colonial Inn was built as a house in 1716. By 1900, it was known as the Colonial Inn and was trading on its revolutionary associations. Seiler’s 1775 House was located in Lexington in the farm house of Benjamin Wellington, the first militiaman to be captured by the British during the military action.
One of the most famous New England inns was the Toll House Inn in Whitman. In 1930, Kenneth and Ruth Wakefield opened a restaurant and inn in a colonial house on the road between Boston and New Bedford. Duncan Hines called the Toll House one of his favorite places to eat. The Toll House served featured codfish soufflé, haddock a la king, and broiled live lobster. Meat dishes were straightforward mixed grill, roast beef, and baked ham in cider.
Ruth Wakefield was particularly good at making desserts. Her cookbook included recipes for 29 cakes, 38 puddings, 28 pies, and 18 candies. Duncan Hines favored the Indian pudding: “It makes my mouth water to think of the baked Injun Porridge as it is prepared at Toll House, Whitman, Massachusetts. That’s the kind of dessert that makes a fellow wish for hollow legs.” Of course, Ruth Wakefield’s most famous creation was the Toll House cookie. In 1937, Ruth invented the chocolate chip cookie by adding a chopped semi-sweet Nestlé chocolate bar to butter cookies.
During the 1950s, the Toll House Inn was wildly popular, serving 1,500-2,000 customers every weekend. Thanksgiving dinner became such a tradition that diners had to make reservations by mid-May.
The heyday of Colonial Revival inns specializing in New England food lasted until about 1970. After that, some inns became “gourmet” and added French or Italian dishes. Only a few, such as the Wayside Inn in Sudbury and the Publick House in Sturbridge, maintained the classic New England dishes like chicken pot pie, Yankee pot roast, and Indian pudding. Today, regional cooking has morphed into something more creative, where chefs seek to provide an innovative spin to New England foodstuffs and cooking styles.
James C. O’Connell is the author of Dining Out in Boston