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Image Massachusetts Food Ways: Origins of New England’s “Canonical Dish”

The culture of New England was both a moral and a material order. It defined not only what people thought and felt, but also what they owned and even ate. A case in point was this region’s food ways, which emerged as the combined product of Puritan ideals, East Anglian tastes and American conditions.

The founders of Massachusetts introduced a characteristic attitude toward food which combined Puritan ideals and English tastes. The leading historian of this subject finds a strong culinary conservatism in the first generation. “Seventeenth century New

England,” writes Sarah McMahon, “was intent on maintaining the traditional English fare.”1

New England’s food ways also owed much to the Christian asceticism of its founders, who were among the earliest Americans to associate plain cooking with piety, and vegetables with virtue. “Let no man make a jest at pumpkins,” wrote Edward Johnson, “for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people.”2

The private diaries of the Puritans commonly expressed a settled hostility to sensual indulgence at table. John Winthrop, after a trip to London, scourged himself for overeating:

I grew drowsy and dull in every good duty; it made me marvel at myself when I remembered my former alacrity; I prayed and I wept, yet still I grew more discouraged. God being merciful unto me, hereby to revive me, at length I fell to prayer and fasting, whereto the flesh was as unwilling as the bear at the stake, yet it pleased God that hereby I recovered life and comfort, and then I found plainly that not keeping a strict watch over my appetite, but feeding more liberally than was meet … the flesh waxed wanton, and would no longer wear the yoke, but began to grow jolly and slothful. …

I find by oft and repeated experience, that when I hold under the flesh by temperate diet, and not suffering the mind or outward senses to have everything that they desire, and wean it from the love of the world, I ever then pray without weariness, or ordinary wandering of heart, and am far more fit and cheerful in the duties of my calling.3

This passage revealed many things about John Winthrop’s attitudes toward food. He thought of eating as “feeding,” fasting as a form of “revival,” appetite as “a bear at the stake,” and the “outward senses” as a source of spiritual danger. These attitudes comprised a gastronomic Puritanism which persisted in New England long after the Five Points had been forgotten.

The Puritans of Massachusetts created one of the more austere food ways in the Western world. For three centuries, New England families gave thanks to their Calvinist God for cold baked beans and stale brown bread, while lobsters abounded in the waters of Massachusetts Bay and succulent gamebirds orbited slowly overhead. Rarely does history supply so strong a proof of the power of faith.

An important staple of this diet was “pease porridge,” which gradually developed into what Lucy Larcom called “the canonical dish of our Forefathers”: New England baked beans. Field peas were among the first crops introduced to Massachusetts. As early as the summer of 1629, one colonist reported that “the governor hath store of green pease growing in his garden as good as ever I eat in England.”4

Peas were boiled or baked, and eaten hot or cold three times a day. Sarah McMahon found that “the winter vegetable supply in seventeenth-century households consisted almost entirely of dried peas. … Pease porridge was traditional cold-weather fare for New Englanders of all classes.” In the eighteenth century, “pease” yielded to “pea beans” (a change more of nomenclature than of the crops themselves). But in its fundamentals, New England’s canonical dish remained the same for three centuries.5

Another staple of New England diet was rough brown bread, which the first generation made from a coarse mix of wheat flour and cornmeal. After a disease called wheat rust became a major problem in the 1660s, this mixture was replaced by rye flour and cornmeal—the immortal “rye n’ injun” which nourished New Englanders for many generations. This combination produced a crust so hard that it could be used in place of a spoon to scoop up the beans. Wheat flour alone was reserved for special occasions, and ornamental uses such as the top layer of pies—hence the New-England folk expression, “upper crust.”

Another favorite dish was the New England boiled dinner: meat and vegetables submerged in plain water and boiled relentlessly without seasonings of any kind. This was not a common cooking method in other parts of Anglo-America. During the early nineteenth century, a Yankee girl who found herself living among southerners wrote with some astonishment: “They think that a boiled dish as we boil it is not fit to eat; it is true they boil their food, but each separate. It won’t do to boil cabbage or turnips or beets, carrots and parsnips with their meat.”6

The common table beverage in Massachusetts was dark English beer during the seventeenth century, and fermented apple cider in the eighteenth. There were also fruits and vegetables in season. But the staples remained much the same throughout the year. Sarah McMahon concludes that “old practices were adjusted to new conditions to produce adequate supplies of the traditional staples without fundamentally changing the diet through the whole first century.”7

Yankee food ways provided a healthy diet which was unusually rich in protein, strong in fiber, abundant in its carbohydrates, restrained in its animal fats and balanced in most nutrients except vitamins C and D in winter. The celebrated longevity of New England natives owed something to their eating habits, as well as to the life-giving climate.

But in aesthetic terms, New England’s cuisine was extraordinarily impoverished, particularly by contrast with the cornucopia of culinary riches in the region. The coastal waters of New England teemed with mussels, oysters, lobsters and clams. The rivers were choked with salmon and shad. Wild fowl flourished in abundance. Native delicacies such as glasswort sprouted along the seashore and fiddleheads carpeted the woodlands.

The Puritans showed little interest in these delights except when driven by hunger to consume them. Shellfish was regarded with grave suspicion. Shad roe, a gourmet’s delight, was used as fertilizer. In the first year, John Winthrop complained when he was compelled to eat oysters and wild duck instead of the staples of old England. “My dear wife,” he wrote, “we are here in a paradise, though we have not beef and mutton.”8

The sense of sameness in New England food ways was deepened by its dining habits. On Yankee tables, every dish arrived at the same time “all piled together … without regard to French doctrine of courses.” Cooking and eating were all of a piece among these straight-forward folk.9

New England’s food ways derived not only from the religion of its founders, but also from their region of origin in the mother country. Modern studies have discovered that methods of cooking differ even today from one British region to another. The most detailed inquiry finds three distant culinary regimes of food preparation, marked by a special taste for frying in the south and west, for boiling in the north, and for baking in East Anglia. All methods of cooking, of course, exist in every region. But the balance is distinctly different from one part of England to another—so much so that even in the twentieth century British merchants vary their inventories of kitchen equipment according to region.10

The East Anglian taste for baking became an important part of culinary customs in New England, and leavened the general austerity of its regional diet. Harriet Beecher Stowe remembered that the “old brick oven was a true Puritan institution, and backed up the devotional habits of good housewives, by the capital care which he took of whatever was committed to his capacious bosom.”11 These brick ovens were amongst the first structures built in Massachusetts.12 Housewives too poor to own them used baking kettles and primitive reflector ovens.

New England baking took many forms. The ritual Thanksgiving dinner came mainly from the oven—baked Turkey, baked squash, baked beans, baked bread and baked pies in vast profusion. The pie, in particular, became a Yankee folk art. Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Oldtown Folks celebrated the social history of the New England pie:

The pie is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses. Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry pies, cherry pies, green-currant pies, peach, pear, and plum pies, custard pies, apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies,—pies with top crusts, and pies without,—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested the boundless fertility of the feminine mind, when once let loose in a given direction.

The oven became New England’s cornucopia. As it poured forth its profusion of cakes and pies, it became a living presence in a

New England household. Mrs. Stowe waxed romantic about her oven:

In the corner of the great kitchen, during all these days, the jolly old oven roared and crackled in great volcanic billows of flame, snapping and gurgling as if the old fellow entered with joyful sympathy into the frolic of the hour; and then, his great heart being once warmed up, he brooded over successive generations of pies and cakes, which went in raw and came out cooked, till butteries and dressers and shelves and pantries were literally crowded with jostling abundance.

So vast was the production of Mrs. Stowe’s oven that her Natick parsonage had a special “pie-room” where frozen baked goods were kept through cold New England winters. She remembered:

a great cold northern chamber, where the sun never shone, and where in winter the snow sifted in at the window-cracks, and ice and frost reigned with undisputed sway, was fitted up to be the storehouse of these surplus treasures. There, frozen solid, and thus well preserved in their icy fetters, they formed a great repository for all the winter months; and the pies baked at Thanksgiving often came out fresh and good with the violets of April.13

The austerity of New England’s food ways was softened by its abundance of baked goods. Even so, this culture made a virtue of sensual restraint. For a very long time it preserved a spirit of self-denial which was appropriate to a region that Samuel Adams described as a “Christian Sparta.” Even in the nineteenth century, the austerity of New England food ways appeared in the image of Brother Jonathan who stares out at us from his earliest photographs with gaunt body, sallow skin, hollow cheeks, burning eyes and shrunken mouth. To his distrusting cousins, the stereotypical Yankee had a lean and hungry look.

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