New England’s most iconic foods are more than mere items on a bucket list. They’re edible artifacts. Learn more about the history of chowder, baked beans, blueberry pie, stuffies, and Yankee pot roast, plus how to make (or where to order!) them.
By Amy Traverso
Sep 30 2020
In our 2020 feature “85 Best Things to Do in New England,” we couldn’t resist the urge to dedicate a full page to mastering New England cuisine. Below you’ll find senior food editor Amy Traverso’s ode to eating like a real New Englander.
New England’s most iconic foods—chowder, baked beans, blueberry pie, and the like—are more than mere items on a bucket list. They’re edible artifacts, telling stories of immigration, history, and agriculture. Take clam chowder. It starts with a pot of fish, salt pork, and hardtack simmering in an 18th-century Maine fishing camp. Eventually, the hardtack is swapped out for potatoes. In the mid-1800s, as cows replace sheep in northern pastures and dairies multiply, milk and cream go into the pot. Then clams—long derided as peasant food—come into vogue with the Victorians. And there you have clam chowder, a dish more than two centuries in the making. When I tuck into a bowl at the Chatham Fish Pier in Chatham, Massachusetts, with its view of fishing boats and harbor seals bobbing in the waves, I say a little thank-you for each innovation.
Or take blueberry pie. It’s a relative newcomer to the New England canon, as Maine’s wild blueberries didn’t find a wider audience until the Civil War, when the Union army added canned blueberries to soldiers’ rations. For great examples of Maine blueberry pie, go to Two Fat Cats bakery in Portland or Helen’s in Machias.
A staple of Native American cooking, stewed beans in some form go back well before 1620, but the molasses-sweetened baked beans of Saturday-night memories didn’t appear until the late 1800s, when molasses was cheap and plentiful. (To learn more about the fact-vs.-reality of New England food, check out Meg Muckenhoupt’s compelling new book, The Truth about Baked Beans.) It’s hard to find baked beans on restaurant menus, but many diners and barbecue restaurants around New England still serve them, as does Boston’s Union Oyster House. A favorite source: community suppers like those at the Congregational churches in Kensington, New Hampshire, and North Gorham, Maine, and at the Grange Hall in Brownsville, Vermont.
As a category, “New England food” is fairly insular, limiting its scope to dishes associated with the Pilgrims while excluding French-Canadian, Italian, Chinese, Irish, and Polish dishes we’ve been eating for centuries. Rhode Island’s signature foods are more integrated, and I can think of no more delicious example than stuffies. Plain quahogs filled with chopped clams and plain stuffing are made infinitely tastier with the addition of garlicky, spicy Portuguese chouriço or linguiça (all the best versions have it). My favorites come from Amaral’s in Warren, Rhode Island; Anthony’s in Middletown, Rhode Island; and PJ’s Family Restaurant in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
We end with good old Yankee pot roast, another Victorian-era recipe with ancient roots. Humans have stewed meats as long as they’ve cooked in pots, but the earliest known recipe called “Pot Roast” dates back to the 1870s, and its ingredients and cooking method closely resemble those of today. I find great examples of the dish at the Griswold Inn in Essex, CT; Grill 23 in Boston; and the Common Man restaurants in New Hampshire—but I’ll also never turn my nose up at the semi-homemade version with onion soup mix or canned cream of mushroom soup. Every recipe has a backstory. The older the recipe, the longer the tale, which is why food is so interesting. But ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and here in New England—whether by the sea, or at a farm dinner, or in the city neighborhood you always promised you’d explore—there’s a flavor you will find only here.