When it comes to eating real food, we’ve got the plainest, squarest, and most wonderful meat and potatoes meal in America — the New England Boiled Dinner.
When Grover Cleveland took over the presidency from Chester A. Arthur in 1885, he inherited more than a new address and the nation’s problems. He came into a legacy of epicurean dining that he loathed. The former President had liked his food with its nose in the air: dits of foie gras, dots of charlotte russe; he even dandified his macaroni pie by adding oysters. Cleveland, a regular Joe of simple tastes, put up with the fancy food; but one night, catching a whiff of corned beef and cabbage being eaten by the servants, the president traded his Arthurian meal for theirs. “It was the best dinner I had had for months,” he later beamed. “Boeuf corne au cabeau!”
Hear, hear, Mr. President! In the current age of culinary frippery and fickle food fashion, of nouvelle cuisine and diet dinners of Pritikin paucity, there is something especially estimable about a plainly named plate of meat and potatoes. Health foodies and fussy chefs de cuisine be damned; the world needs real nourishment when it sits down at the table, a stick-to-the-ribs hunk of cow with vegetables dug up from the good earth. And when it comes to eating plain and square, we in the northeastern part of the United States have everyone else beat. We’ve got the plainest, squarest, clunkiest, and most wonderful meat and potatoes meal in America — the New England Boiled Dinner.
Picture it: a big hunk of corned beef brisket, brick-red, striated with juicy veins of fat, falling-into-shreds tender, sliced thick, in the center of the biggest platter in the house. Around this great meat hub glistens a faded rainbow of vegetables: beets in a crimson puddle that bleeds into the salty dampness of the beef; limp cabbage wedges, steamy and pale; small boiled potatoes and heavy rutabagas luxuriating in the mingled juices. Above this hot rugged landscape hover clouds of briny perfume.
With a glass of cider, hard or sweet, this is the ultimate, the Primal Meal. Compared to it, other contenders for the most basic food in America — steak and french fries or ham and biscuits or turkey and dressing — are fancy. If you doubt us, consider its name: Boiled Dinner! You could not get more generic, prosaic, or neutral unless you called it Dinner, Boiled.
Americans didn’t invent it. English boiled beef goes way back, and most other countries have similar dishes. French pot au feu; Italian bollito misto; even Mongolian hot pots. They are all boiled dinners. But none is a Boiled Dinner.
There is magic to the one and only real thing. It isn’t just corned beef plus cabbage plus other stuff; it’s all of them together on the same plate on Wednesday night, probably in Vermont.
Why Vermont? Because although Boiled Dinner is at home in every New England state, its essential qualities are Vermont’s. It is a commonsense meal, no exotic ingredients. It is a meal with integrity — throw everything into the pot, pull it out when it’s cooked. No tricky culinary manipulations allowed. It is frugal and spartan and pridefully common.
It even looks like Vermont, as much an icon of country life as a checked wool shirt or a hitched team of horses: solid inland food offering plenty of calories that will take a good day’s work to use up.
The simplicity of Boiled Dinner is logical. It gets cold in the North Country, so you stoke a fire. As long as the fire is going, why not put its heat to work cooking dinner? So you hang a pot of water over the heat, throw a bunch of food in, and go about your chores all day while the meal cooks. The rutabaga crop isn’t so good? That’s okay, throw in parsnips or turnips or carrots, whatever root vegetables are handy. It’s the original potluck supper.
Some early cookbooks even call for centerpieces other than corned beef. We’ve seen salt pork, dusted with cinnamoned flour and browned until the fat is rendered, boiled with vegetables and served in the center of the plate with no beef at all. Closer to the shore, you will find aberrant oceanic Boiled Dinners centered around codfish; further south, around — ulp — boiled chicken.
In Maine, it is said, cooks prefer the rump; some books call for beef flank; but the proper anchor is beef brisket, corned. Before it was available in every supermarket in cryovac bags, cooks had to cure their own, submerging the beef for weeks in a brine made from salt and gunpowder (the latter contained in shells known as “corns,” hence the name). Properly corned, the beef has plenty of tang to flavor the pot of water and all the vegetables thrown in. Some traditional Vermont recipes say the corned beef should be boiled with a strip of salt pork for more flavor. In his authoritative book, American Cookery, James Beard suggests studding the brisket with cloves after it’s been boiled, then glazing it with maple syrup or brown sugar and mustard. Beard also says that potatoes weren’t part of the repertoire until 1725.
Spice it up with bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, throw in a squash or half a dozen onions. It is a tribute to the essential integrity of Boiled Dinner that you can dude it up a thousand ways, but the gravity of its own weight keeps it down to earth.
Which is not to say you couldn’t start a civil war about what is and is not proper on the Boiled Dinner plate. Esther Serafini of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, is already on the warpath. Sixteen years ago the Time-Life Books cooking series printed her recipe for Boiled Dinner, but changed it to suit their taste by adding one onion pierced with one clove. When we checked the recipe with her, she was still steaming. “I was never so angry in my life,” she fumed. “Whoever heard of an onion in a Boiled Dinner?”
Mrs. Serafini, whose family has run the Homestead Inn for generations, is in charge of making the dowdy dish that has been the house specialty for more than 100 years. She explains its popularity among rural New Englanders by saying, “We were poor. All poor families could raise some vegetables and find a piece of meat to put with them. Boiled Dinners kept us strong and healthy.”
That’s the idea. Strong and healthy. In her New England Cookbook, Eleanor Early remembers that “Wednesday was Boiled Dinner Day. When Grandpa came home at midday, the hired girl staggered into the dining room with an enormous ironstone platter which she placed before him. To have dinner on the table at noon, Grandmother was up at dawn.” Up at dawn? Yes, the truth is that although the cooking technique — boiling the hell out of everything — is simple, a successful Boiled Dinner demands a lot of effort, effort and time that no modern kitchen implement can reduce. Boiled Dinner means making food the old-fashioned way.
That is the way they continue to do things at the venerable Homestead Inn. Like Eleanor Early’s grandmother, Mrs. Serafini gets up with the sun to start the beef boiling in a large kettle. When it’s properly tender, she removes it from its salty liquor, carefully wrapping it in aluminum foil to keep it moist. She then divides the cooking liquid into numerous pots, and boils each vegetable for the proper length of time, cabbage last.
Even if one wants to be more traditional and boil all the vegetables together, Mrs. Serafini warns, the beets have to be separated out lest they bleed into their pot-mates. She admits that this is a nicety for the sake of Homestead guests. She’d throw the beets right in with the rest if she were doing it just for her family, who she cheerfully says, “wouldn’t give a hoot.”
When everything is cooked, she serves dinner to guests on ten-inch glass plates which, like everything else at the Homestead, are family heirlooms. With an artist’s eye she places three strips of beef in the center, cabbage and potato — both pale — at each end, then adds the more colorful turnips, carrots, and beets in between. On the side comes a horseradish sauce that Mrs. Serafini says makes her guests go, “Oooooeeeahhh!”
Boiled Dinner is family food, served at grand old inns like the Homestead or Philbrook Farm in Shelburne, New Hampshire, but mostly at home. Still, there are some restaurants that are not too highfalutin to offer Boiled Dinner. The Bar-Jo Restaurant in South Paris, Maine, where the sign out front boasts of Electrically Cooked Foods, serves it every Thursday, as does Moody’s in Waldoboro; you’ll find it on occasion at the Fairlee Diner in Vermont, and at its sister restaurant, Roberts’ Country Kitchen in Thetford. Up north, in Berlin, New Hampshire, The Wayside Restaurant makes a grand Boiled Dinner three times a month, usually on Sundays, as well as an even rarer edible antique, salt pork with milk gravy.
One other special item occasionally found on the Wayside menu is red flannel hash, the dish that many consider to be Boiled Dinner’s better half. Let it now be said: no Boiled Dinner is truly over with until days later, when the last of the red flannel hash is served. Indeed, Boiled Dinner cannot be honestly discussed without fair mention of this, its second, scarlet incarnation, for the simple reason that never in the recorded history of New England has an entire Boiled Dinner been polished off at one sitting.
All of us morning people, who think that breakfast is the gastronomic high point of the day, contend that the best reason to go to all the trouble of a Boiled Dinner is those lovely leftovers. Hack ’em up, moisten with a splash of cream, and slap a thick pancake’s worth into a greased cast-iron skillet. Fry it crisp, serve it with a sunny dropped egg on top, and when your fork breaks through the patty’s crust to its tender insides, the reason for the name becomes apparent — the beets have tinted the whole juicy mess a rosy red.
The chopped-up leftovers are actually prettier than the original dish. Boiled Dinner is a rugged, at best handsome, platter of chow; red flannel hash is ravishing, downright elegant. As the beets and corned beef sizzle, casting their resplendent spicy tang into the air, it is hard to think of this princely dish as leftovers.
And wonder of wonders, it is becoming something that its old boiled self could never have imagined — fashionable. Red flannel hash has been discovered and embraced by advocates of regional American cookery. It has gone “from the prosaic to the sublime,” according to James Villas in American Taste; “out of the roadhouse and into the serious kitchen,” proclaimed Cook’s magazine.
There are even some who maintain that red flannel hash should be made from scratch with bacon, beets, potatoes, and onions. But come on, admit it. That’s the sissy way. Anybody with backbone knows you’ve got to earn your hash by plowing through New England Boiled Dinner the night before.
Excerpt from “Let’s Give Boiled Dinner Its Due,” Yankee Magazine, April 1986.