These traditional New England recipes emphasize foods that “taste best at their appropriate season,” based on Great-Aunt Ida’s recipes and some nine generations of testing conducted on the family homestead right at the mouth of the Merrimack River — Arrowhead Farm.
It’s been nine generations — 300 years — since one William Moulton of Hampton, New Hampshire, set out from his family home to make a life for himself. He was 19 in the year 1683, and he had an inheritance of £5, which he used to buy four acres of land in Newbury at the mouth of the Merrimack River. By the time he died in 1732, Arrowhead Farm had grown to 60 acres and a value of £1,433. His farm, like others of the time, made him and his family almost completely self-sufficient, providing corn and grain; vegetables; meat from sheep, hogs, and fowl; wool and flax for cloth; wood for fuel, tools, and buildings; maple syrup; salt hay for livestock feed; and enough fish from the river that local apprentices’ contracts stipulated they would not be forced to eat salmon more than six times a week. Trading ships brought tea, spices, raisins and molasses and set the basis for New England farm cooking as we still know it — corn and brown breads, Indian pudding, chowders, baked beans, and fruit pies in season.
Charlotte Moulton Chase lives on Arrowhead Farm in one of three 18th-century houses on the property, linked by the land to the first generation of Moultons. (Her house, built in 1789, has been moved twice on the property, the first time pulled by 25 yokes of oxen, the second time by one horse with a winch.) Most people in town think of Arrowhead Farm as the farmstand on High Road in Newbury, where Charlotte and her son Dick sell flowers, fresh vegetables, strawberries, honey, and even Christmas trees. But the farm where all those things are produced is intact, tucked away on the Ferry Road, where old William Moulton himself might recognize a few of the buildings and certainly the lay of the land. Nineteenth-century Moultons, resurrected, could tread familiar worn spots on the steep stairs or sit around the oval walnut table in the kitchen on the prized Hitchcock chairs bought for a dollar apiece in 1835 as “fancy chairs.” On weekends Charlotte’s daughter Polly (Pauline Chase Harrell) drives out from Boston, where she heads an historic preservation consulting firm called Boston Affiliates, to join her mother in the kitchen, the heart of the house.
“My mother is the most unadulterated New England cook among us,” Polly said. “My cooking is a lot like hers, but sometimes I branch out.” Family meals in the summer often mean picnics on a nearby beach, or in the pine grove on the farm. “When Polly was little,” Charlotte remembers, “we often had Saturday night bean-pot dinners on Cape Ann. We’d bake the beans at home all day and then wrap up the hot bean pot in newspapers and take it to the beach.” The meals that Charlotte and Polly make are often inspired by family favorites written in Great-Aunt Ida’s careful old-fashioned script in her “receipt book,” now tattered and falling apart, but still relied upon — Aunt Ida’s Strawberry Preserves (made on the ratio of 2/3 cup sugar for each quart of berries), Aunt Ida’s White Bread, Aunt Ida’s Homemade Worcestershire Sauce. Charlotte’s sister Elizabeth recently unearthed Aunt Ida’s recipe for tomato casserole, a rule that had been thought lost for years. Charlotte and Polly also add their own favorites — Charlotte’s Brown Bread Gems, which she calls Back and Forth Cakes because she bakes them in a rounded gem pan so they roll back and forth on a plate; Polly’s Zucchini-Cheese Soup, delicious hot or cold.
Most of the foods that Charlotte and Polly serve are ordered by the seasons. In Arrowhead Farm, a book they wrote with Dick to celebrate their farm’s tricentennial, they write: “Working the same land year after year, you get an understanding for its peculiar personality, its idiosyncrasies, what it will and won’t do in any season . . . . If the activities and attitudes on the farm differ with the seasons, so, traditionally, does the food. We still associate fresh produce with summer, applesauce and apple pit with fall, and Indian pudding with winter. At Arrowhead we find that foods tastes best at their appointed season, and we are most likely to serve them then.”
Traditionally on the farm, breakfasts were hearty and served early; dinner, the heavy meal of the day, was served at noon to fuel the afternoon’s work; and supper, after milking and evening chores, was a light meal to end the day, often including little more than bread and butter, fruit, and dessert. Although 20th-century life often draws the family away from home during the day, on weekends, especially Sundays, they gather to eat in the ancestral patterns and take the time to make a favorite old dish.
The Fourth of July has always carried strong traditions with it. Charlotte’s father, Charlie, told stories that his grandmother had told about her childhood, which took the memories back to the early 1800s. Charlie himself loved to hang his 36-star flag over the front door and set off a few Roman candles on the lawn after dark. And the dinner menu (noon) — then and now — was unswerving: pan-fried salmon (or roast spring lamb), new peas, tiny beets, new boiled potatoes, Parker house rolls, strawberry shortcake, and pink lemonade. These days, because business booms at the farmstand on the Fourth, the family and farm crew usually celebrate on the fifth, carrying the food out onto the shaded piazza. That evening Charlotte will put out a light supper of cold vegetable salad served on new lettuce with a cooked salad dressing that she says dates back to the time “before people discovered mayonnaise,” wooden trays of homemade bread, fresh creamery butter, sliced strawberries sprinkled with sugar (but not chilled, because that changes the texture of the berries), and her wild rose pitcher brimming with light cream.
After strawberry season comes raspberry time, when Charlotte and Polly will serve light suppers of cold sliced chicken, hot buttered biscuits, and bowls of sugared berries. Next come blueberries, which heavily stud the muffins they serve with cheddar cheese omelets. Finally come the peaches, which appear on the table either plain (just peeled, sliced, sugared, and chilled) or embedded in a cobbler to accompany fresh corn chowder and buttered common crackers. Each summer supper, following the natural course of the farm crops, fits the season and suits the people. And as these descendants of William Moulton begin the farm’s fourth century, one can only conclude that of the many good ways to live, this must be one of the best.
Excerpt from “Great New England Cooks: Charlotte Moulton Chase and Polly Chase Harrell, Newburyport, Massachusetts,” Yankee Magazine, July 1984