If you had to name a cuisine that amuses and delights, you'd never even consider New England's. Its virtues may be many, but none of them comes close to amusing and delighting. What you have is food to fuel stiff backbones and upper lips. Think of the currently fashionable dessert Tira Mi Su with its sweet, overblown richness, and think of Indian pudding.
But New England food certainly suits New England.
"What's better than chowdah?" one fisherman is supposed to have asked another.
"More chowdah," is the answer, a regional joke to tell within the region.
We moved up here to the Hamptons (the New Hampshire Hamptons) in the middle of the Oriental food craze before suburban supermarkets carried bean curd and snow peas. Passionate cooks were begging both from the chefs of the Chinese restaurants up on Rte. 1, and I began to schedule regular food runs to Boston's Chinatown.
Up to then we had been casual tourists searching out restaurants with colonial atmosphere in winter and outdoor lobster restaurants in summer where you pointed to the creature of your choice and got buttery with steamed clams until it was ready. Now I know that summer lobsters with the papery shells are not my favorites, and most of the atmospheric places are sporting pink tablecloths and ordering arugula from their produce suppliers. It's the graying of American food.
But if I was going to live here as a food person, I had to know more about New England dishes than chowder and lobster. A mathematician friend raved about her mother's lemon sponge pie, which I assumed was one of those dreadful chiffon concoctions. No, Mrs. Hudson's Laconia Lemon Sponge Pie is intensely lemon, baked brown on top, a dense souffle' in a flaky crust and marvelous. What else was around?
This was to be heavy research, so I hit all the libraries in the area starting with the University of New Hampshire and then scaling down to the Portsmouth library. A ton of cookbooks were written lovingly every decade and most of them had survived the open stacks in both places. Some are regional within the region -- precious accumulations from Cape Cod or the Green Mountains of Vermont -- recipe books on New England inn food and compilations from the kitchens of those ladies who volunteer at Strawberry Banke (Portsmouth's restored historical district) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They do wondrous things with canned clams and creamed cheese. That mysterious mayonnaise/horseradish topping for broiled fish appeared over and over and over.
The best and most New English were the books that had been rebound in basic library drab, the cookbooks checked out so often and dripped on so continuously that you knew they were local favorities.
One -- "New England Cooking" -- supposedly was written by the secretary of Kenneth Roberts (Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell, Arundel), but I would bet you a week's dinners that he wrote every word. The tone of voice is the same as the one he used in "Trending Into Maine," which is filled with his grandmother's hash, cod cakes, unsweetened ketchup to eat with baked beans. After a while, condiments for baked beans became familiar. (I would like to give you more information on the book, but it has been stolen from every library within driving distance.)
I even went farther afield, stopping off at little village libraries around the state whenever I was on an assignment away from the coast and in no time I realized that this written collection drew from the same 200 recipes. Wait. Maybe 100 recipes. The entire region is caught up in its own narrow myth. If there is food beyond a boiled dinner, a handful of chowders, some straightforward pies for dessert and a few celebration cakes; the traditionalists don't want to know.
When Julia Child casually slid a spoonful of sour cream into her unorthodox New England chowder on her television show, 10,000 New England cooks must have gasped.
Still, the most Yankee of all the women I'd met up to that time was Dot Spear -- spare, wiry, quick, and she called her husband by his last name. "Spear's got the car today," she'd say, "so I guess I'll have to walk to town."
When I asked her about real chowder, she said she made it out of anything in the kitchen -- canned tuna, salmon, just potatoes. "Tomatoes?" she said when I asked about the Manhattan/New England acrimony. "Adds a bit of color, doesn't it?"
Then a Larkin cookbook surfaced from the bottom of someone's closet -- the Larkin company being an old door-to-door retail operation that kept rural New England in basic ingredients like flour and baking powder, vinegar and so forth. It was chock full of Yankee thrift and ingenuity -- butterscotch bars without butter, an orange cake similar to Boston Cream Pie flavored with one orange to serve six. Cole slaw dressed with vinegar and a pinch of sugar rather than boiled dressing, and creamy baked chicken without cream. It was a real gem.
But so much for the available literature. Private recipe collections sounded like the thing to go for. By now, new-found friends were hauling through family recipe files and searching out people in their neighborhoods who were dedicated regional cooks. I sat on a lot of hard wooden chairs in a lot of chilly kitchens. Only the weak and shallow need a comfy chair.
One small and intimate local library passed me on to a New England widow in her late 70s who was, they insisted, a great, old-fashioned cook. She had a new house that her successful children had built for her and a new Mercedes and a whole living room full of new furniture. We sat in the kitchen and she talked:
Raspberries swell up after the rain. Her uncle made great chowder with two pounds of haddock, an extravagance even 70 years ago. These pickles are excellent with baked beans. (Pickles?)
The treasures in her card file involved cherry gelatin mold with canned bing cherries and that familiar ice box cake with commercial lady fingers and a German chocolate mousse filling. They were the very same as recipes from Good Housekeeping and Women's Home Companion that ladies in Milwaukee and Atlanta had clipped and saved. I copied the one for Rummage Pickles to eat with the fast-disappearing baked beans, and after repeating the exercise in three more kitchens, I gave up private collections.
Since we live on the ocean, the knowledge to pick up was from the fishing families. Everybody knows it took decades to get the American consumer to try the common mussels -- a shellfish that seems to form a solid blue-black crust on our intertidal zone.
"They make good chowder," a retired lobsterman told me as I hauled a cluster out of a tidepool with my clam fork. I had planned to steam them with garlic, thyme, white wine and some red pepper flakes. They do make good chowder.
Then the simple instructions for boiling lobster. "Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a rolling boil." Right? Wrong! The first day I got the message was in a small lobster pound when I was interviewing the lady owner. Casually she talked as she hypnotized a lobster by scratching it's boney tummy. Then she made it stand up on its tail. I mean, if you can do it to a frog, why not a lobster? And she said, "I use this much water for steaming lobster." That silly thing swayed gently on its tail as she raised her hand with thumb and forefinger two inches apart. "You don't want to lose all of that good flavor in the water."
This was confirmed in a little seafood cookbook put out by the Friends of the Kittery Library -- pages and pages of haddock casseroles and even a few for canned tuna -- but the lobsters were steamed over an inch or two of water for 10 minutes for the one-pounders, New England's favorite size.
A fisherman's daughter at the Blue Fin Market told me to soak mackerel in milk before rolling them in cornmeal and saute'eing them in butter. It wasn't a recipe you'd find in a cookbook. Too simple. Then another woman on a mackerel-lucky party boat told me to make a sauce of mayonnaise, with a little ketchup to make it pink and a minced clove of garlic and to slather it on split mackerel before broiling. (I had just hauled in my 23rd fish.) Her tall, taciturn husband who was getting quietly smashed on beer leaned over and said, "Did you tell her about the garlic?"
My friend Peter is a professional photographer who will wait for days until the sun hits a dilapidated colonial house just right. He is a true New Hampshire native. "I'd like to see you do a piece on the food out at the Isle of Shoals." They're a cluster of historic islands on the Maine-New Hampshire border a few miles off shore. "You could tell people about things like periwinkles and stewed beans."
"Sure. You just put them in a pot and stew them."
Hardly. I called his mother who said that they were soldier, navy, pea, pink, red, any kind of dried beans stewed slowly on top of the stove with a chunk of salt pork and a big onion -- "essentially like baked beans without the sweeteners. When they're done, you pour them over a thick piece of good bread or even cornbread in a soup plate. Add a shot of vinegar if you want."
Peter's birthday dinner of choice from the time he was a little kid is interesting -- "mashed potatoes, saute'ed onion, poached salt cod all mixed together with a handful of salt pork cracklings, and finally you pour the pork fat over just like it was gravy. And pickled beets," she said, "served on the side."
Someone must keep track of dishes that ring with such regional fervor. A recent article on Judith and Evan Jones -- she a cookbook editor at Knopf and he a famous food historian -- said that they were working on "The L.L. Bean New England Cookbook" that will include 600 recipes. Not everyone agrees with my rule of a basic 100.
But the restaurant reviews in Boston Magazine and New England Monthly show a definite lack of steamed clams and anadama bread among the young chefs who are enthralled with Paul Prudhomme and Alice Waters. How about a salad of sweetbreads and lobster? Oyster flan? Wild Maine blueberries in a duck sauce? Well, that's not so bad, but Szechuan food seems to be taking over Portland, Maine.
This, too, will pass. In the meantime, you might want to try one of these old and lovely dishes. And as for baked beans, no one is canning good ones these days. You'll just have to find a good old recipe and make your own. CREAMY BAKED CHICKEN (4 to 6 servings)
3 1/2 to 4 pound roasting chicken, disjointed
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon crushed sage
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons rendered chicken fat
2 cups milk
Remove any visible fat from the chicken and render the necessary 2 tablespoons in an iron skillet or heavy stove top-to-oven casserole. Place flour, salt, pepper and sage in a paper bag and shake chicken pieces a few at a time to coat them, knocking off excess flour. Heat butter and chicken fat and add the chicken pieces. Brown over moderate heat on both sides for about 10 minutes, making sure that the flour does not burn. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet, add 2 tablespoons of the seasoned flour that you used to coat the chicken and stir in the milk. Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Place skillet or casserole in a 350-degree oven and bake until chicken is done and gravy thickened, basting occasionally. This will take 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the chicken. Serve with a corn or vegetable pudding or scalloped potatoes to get double use out of your oven as any conscientious Yankee would. RUMMAGE PICKLES
Any variety or amount of vegetables can be used. That's where the pickle got its name.
1 quart green tomatoes
1 quart ripe tomatoes
6 medium onions
6 sweet green peppers
2 sweet red peppers
1 small cabbage
1 large cucumber
1 cup salt
1 quart vinegar
2 pounds sugar, white, brown or a combination
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon mustard
Chop all vegetables medium fine in a food processor with quick pulses, or put through the food chopper as it's always been done. Mix together in a large bowl, pour salt over all, and let stand overnight. Drain in the morning. Combine vinegar, sugar, pepper, mustard and the vegetables. Boil slowly 1 1/2 hours. Seal in hot jars while mixture is still very hot. ORANGE CREAM PIE (6 servings)
FOR THE CAKE:
1/4 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
Grated rind of 1 orange
1/3 cup orange juice
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups sifted cake flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
FOR THE FILLING:
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Butter and flour two 8-inch layer cake pans.
To prepare the cake, cream butter and sugar with half of grated orange rind. Beat in the eggs one at a time and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add orange juice.
Sift together the baking powder and cake flour and sift again. Add to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk and vanilla. Divide the batter between the 2 pans and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until tops are lightly brown. Remove from pans and cool on racks.
To prepare the filling, whisk together the milk, flour and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Beat together the egg, orange juice and remaining orange rind. Add some of the hot custard mixture to warm the egg and return to the pan. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Cool and spread between cake layers. Dust tops with a little confectioners' sugar. LEMON SPONGE PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie)
9-inch flaky pie crust shell
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Grated rind of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup milk
2 eggs, separated
1/8 teaspoon salt
Bake pie shell for 7 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Remove from the oven and immediately turn it down to 350 degrees.
In the container of a blender, combine butter, sugar, flour, grated lemon rind and juice, milk, egg yolks and salt and blend until thoroughly combined. Beat egg whites in a medium-size bowl, pour the contents of the container into it, and fold the egg whites around the mixture. (The mixture will be quite liquid).
Pour into partially baked shell and bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees.