New England

Regional History and Influence on Cuisine


The First Colonists

Most people who initially came to the New World hoped to find treasure of one kind or another and return home. But in the New England region, religious motives brought the first settlers. A small group of English separatists, the Pilgrims, arrived in 1620 and founded the Plymouth Colony. Unprepared for the hardships of their first winter, their concern was survival. With help from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims lived through the winter.Native American influence on colonial cookery was incalculable—primarily in terms of the kinds of produce used, leading off with maize, which the settlers called “Indian corn.” One tribe of natives, the Wampanoag, shared their seeds of native corn plants and instructed the settlers in how to plant and fertilize their crop by planting a tiny fish along with each seed. The harvested corn could be steamed, roasted, or pounded into cornmeal. Cornmeal “mush” became a staple of the colonists' diet and was served hot or cold, with milk and butter. The colonists learned to adapt their own traditional recipes, substituting cornmeal for hearth cakes—puddings with a different flavor, but a similar cooking method. Americans now have johnnycakes, boiled and baked Indian puddings, and other English recipes using Indian corn. This use of maize is the most important and original aspect of American cookery, and the nation is known for its many corn recipes.

In addition to corn, Native Americans subsisted beans and squash. This “triad” of corn, beans, and squash was referred to as the “three sisters.” Kidney beans, string beans, snap beans, butter beans, lima beans, navy peas, and pole beans were planted. Many varieties of squash, including acorn, zucchini, pumpkins, and gourds, were adopted by the colonists. The squash could be eaten fresh or could be dried and stored. The squash seeds could be dried and used as well. The vegetables combined together were known as “succotash,” a term that today describes a mixture of corn, with any type of beans and squash.

The Native Americans taught these newcomers how to hunt and fish, and how to cure and smoke their food to preserve it through the winter. Bean pods could be left on the vine until they were thoroughly dry, and then used through the winter. The colonists learned to cook dried beans and depended on them as a staple food. The Indians of New England flavored their beans with maple sugar and bear fat and slow-cooked them in underground pits inside deer hides. This preparation evolved into today's baked beans that are very slowly cooked in a bean pot with salt pork and molasses. The Puritans' observance of the Sabbath led to the widespread practice of making beans on Saturday to be eaten on Sunday.

New Immigrants

In the 1880s, when immigrants, particularly those from Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, began to arrive en masse in New England, the culinary customs they brought from their homelands were incorporated into the regional cuisine and cooking style. Single-pot dishes such as meat and seafood stews, which were commonly eaten in Europe, were adapted to the local ingredients. Braised and pickled beef, a mainstay of Britain and Ireland, became the popular dish called New England Boiled Dinner.

The New England Pantry

Native New England ingredients formed the basis of the developing cuisine. Root vegetables such as beets, celeriac, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, onions, and white and sweet potatoes saw them through the winters. Apples were brought over by the English colonists, and over 150 varieties were planted. They established apricot, plum, and pear orchards and cultivated strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries.
The early settlers of New England also brought many animals with them to their new homeland. As livestock were useful and easy to feed and care for, they could be found on nearly every New England farm. Farmers raised cattle for milk and beef, sheep for mutton and wool, chicken for eggs and meat, and oxen and horses for pulling carts and plows. Pigs were widely owned because they could fend almost entirely for themselves by foraging in the woods for food.

Wheat and rye could be planted once the livestock was available to plow the rocky land. The colonists brought their techniques of stone-ground milling for their grains.

Cider and ale were the main beverages of the early settlers. Hard fermented cider, the standard drink for both adults and children, was generally made from apples, although pears were also used. Wines from mulberries, cherries, and grapes were also produced.

The Influence of the Sea on the Economy

Eventually, settlers arrived who understood fishing. Coming mainly from Italy and Portugal, they discovered the immense resources of the Georges Bank, an underwater plateau southeast of Boston that is the richest fishing area off the east coast of North America. Fishing and fish became an important part of the lifestyle and history of the peoples of coastal New England. The abundance of cod and other fish made it possible to survive in the New World. It was not long after this region was settled that the first fisheries came into existence and the New England economy flourished through the exportation of cod. Before the invention of refrigeration, salted cod was not only an important export item, but also the only fish available in inland areas.

The ocean fish that can be caught year round in this area include cod, haddock, pollock, and silver hake. Also popular are the flatfish, halibut, flounder, fluke, and dabs. Monkfish, eels, wolffish, sea trout, perch, and sea bass are less familiar but readily available. Small ocean fish like mackerel, porgies, butterfish, and smelts are also in abundant supply. Swordfish, shark, tuna, bluefish, Atlantic salmon, and striped bass come north in the spring and leave before winter arrives. Shellfish such as lobsters, crabs, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, periwinkles, sea urchins, and even shrimp live in the icy waters.

In New England, the cooking of the earlier era was plain, resting on simple ingredients and skilled hands. But today, the culinary traditions of New England grow ever richer as more cultures are integrated and add diversity to the cuisine. New influences currently come from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. However, the roots of the region run deep and they are the source from which the rest of our nation has sprung.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 1.2.1).