It was quiet when we woke up this morning. Snow quiet. Over night, we received a couple of inches of snow on top of the previous few from the other day. Snow acts as muffler and creates a calm, especially on the weekend when the concern about a nasty work commute isn’t there. Unfortunately, snow gets a bum rap; it just isn’t winter without it.
Today’s was a dry, fluffy snow, which meant the temperatures outside were rather cold. Anyone who’s shoveled snow will quickly remark that it’s better to shovel this snow than the “warmer” weather, heavy wet snow. With the light stuff, one can clear the walkway, driveway and car in a matter of minutes, which is exactly what we did.
It was too pretty outside so we opted to go out for breakfast. Before leaving the house, though, we dressed in our L.L. Bean winter jackets and, most importantly, put on our favorite winter boots: Bogs. We learned about Bogs a few years back from Deb Paisley of Paisley Farm & Greenhouse in West Boxford, MA. We thought, “When a New England farmer recommends a boot, he (or in this case she) knows this from practical use. We picked up ours at the Kittery Trading Post in southern Maine. It’s turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Though Bogs aren’t from New England, they’re perfect for our region.
With Bogs on and feet warm, we hopped in our S.U.V. Yes, it has four-wheel drive (4WD) to make the journeys around Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut a little easier when the white stuff falls. 4WD, unfortunately, does not turn a New England country road with 14 inches of snow into a flat dry interstate in summer. We see more 4WD vehicles on their roofs during a snowstorm than regular cars. Nonetheless, it helps, but only with a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism.
We went out, had a great breakfast that included Rhode Island-style jonnycakes with real Vermont maple syrup. After a pleasant and warm trip out into the snow, we’re now back home, sitting by the fire, and happily telling you about it. Thank goodness for warm shoes and four-wheel drive.
New England blogger friends recently asked, “Where have you two been?” Clearly, we have not been maintaining our writing cadence. “On a fascinating journey,” we remarked. Since last fall, we have been researching the origins New England food, which has taken us to libraries, bookstores, docks, museums, farms, root cellars, markets, and pantries across our six northeast states. We’ve met food historians, librarians, archivists, chefs, farmers, fishermen, family cooks, and various foodstuff purveyors, all of whom are helping us weave the strands of a fascinating story.
With books, journals, maps, menus, cooking instruments, and other regional food paraphernalia now festooning our home office, we realize how intertwined our New England history is with food. And it’s not all glamour either. History never is.
Though the New England food journey is deep and diverse, it helps us better understand who we are, where we came from, and why we’re willing to argue over such things as maple syrup, fried clams, pizza, oysters, whoopie pies, johnnycakes, scrod and beer. Stay tuned because we’ll be sharing our discoveries.
There are many common signs of spring in places where changes of season are clearly evident: flowers pushing up through the last patches of snow to reach the increasing sunshine; birds returning to nest; and frogs serenading from their vernal pools. Here in New England, we have a few more signs of spring: towns repairing potholes; rural cars tackling mud; schoolboys stripping down to shorts and tee-shirts on the first day over fifty degrees; and crowds returning to Fenway Park for Red Sox baseball. We also have a brief, rite of spring that provides lasting and sweet pleasure for the remainder of the year: maple sugaring.
Maple sugar season typically begins in March and lasts until early April. It begins when warm days follow cold nights and trigger the sap to flow or “run.” During this brief season, New England becomes host to many sugar shacks, which are small cabins where collected sap is boiled into maple syrup. When buds appear on the maple trees, these shacks quickly disappear as the sap ceases to flow. This entire ritual takes place quietly, often going unnoticed by most people, unless one is in the maple sugaring business or doing it as a hobby. It’s interesting to consider that this all started with the Native Americans. Little did we know – or anticipate – we’d be joining the world of maple sugaring and syrup production. And it was all by mistake.
The most compelling reason why we bought our 105 year old fixer-upper several years back stood outside our front door: a huge, beautiful and majestic 100 year old street maple, that we named “Big Bertha.” Though we heard rumors that the previous homeowners had tapped Big Bertha for syrup, we had become so busy that we neglected to follow up on our plan to continue their tradition of making syrup. This year – by accident – we had no choice but to try our hand at maple sugaring.
Last November, Big Bertha was maimed during the installation of a new waterline to our home. She lost part of a major limb as a result of the backhoe placement. This incident came as quite a shock, especially since the branch was removed without our consent. Bertha sustained an unfortunate injury, but it was better to lose a limb than to lose an entire tree. According to the contractor, we had been just minutes from losing her if the water line hadn’t been able to be snaked under the tree. Big Bertha sat right on top of the 105-year-old water line.
Big Bertha spent much of the winter resting and recuperating, blanketed by mountains of snow. But a few weeks back, the warm days brought her to tears, literally. She began crying from her wound. The constant weeping, though rather upsetting to us, led to the realization that her sap was running. Maple sugar season arrived when we realized her limb became a huge tap.
With pan in hand, we rushed out to collect the sap. Using what we captured, we made wonderful syrup. That old saying came to us: “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.” We modified it for our purposes: “When a contractor wounds your maple tree in the fall, you make maple syrup in the spring.” It’s just a bit of consolation for the loss of her beautiful limb, which we will miss dearly when the leaves arrive. Perhaps it was her way of sharing this part of her long life with her new guardians.
So what was the result? Bertha’s syrup was delicious, the best we’ve ever had! As the sap boiled down to syrup, the aroma permeated the house. We were left with a nectar rich in maple flavor with stunning amber color and clarity. Fortunately, her wound should heal by next year, so we’ve decided to buy some real taps for next season and continue this New England tradition. Maple sugaring was a great experience, and a sweet way to end a long, bitter winter!
The only things missing are the pancakes and the French toast…
Because we travel all over New England, we’re often asked: “How do you know where to drive?” Though we don’t think about it much, we use a combination of process and intuition when we hit the roads of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. On the process side, we have a large number of maps, some quite new and many over 100 years old. We also have smart phones and global positioning system (GPS) devices. Additionally, we maintain several databases of information, much of which includes historical village records as well as primary and secondary research. On the intuition side of the equation, we determine our next turn by looking at architecture, stonewalls, and old roads that often include names of neighboring towns, points of interest, and historic families. Our intuition also guides us to the “A” roads, such as Route 1A.
What’s the significance of an “A” road? To us, it’s where you discover New England. Many “A” roads are original routes through the old towns, villages, and hamlets; it’s where you find classical architecture as well as centuries of history. They’re often the most scenic (and winding) roads as well. Many original New England roads began as old Indian trails or were created by settlers to support commerce and trade. Throughout New England roads such 1A in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, 12A in Vermont, and 4A in New Hampshire offer visitors a nice retrospective of America before the automobile. Note that the route number and less-frequent, accompanying letter designation did not show up until later.
As the popularity of the automobile in New England increased, cities and towns not only improved old, existing roads, but made new throughways as well. In 1911, the Quebec-Miami International Highway was created as the major north-south travel passage combining old and new roads. It was renamed The Atlantic Highway in New England in 1915. By 1922, improvements and new sections were added and it was renamed Route 1 in New England; the entire route to Florida was called Route 1 by 1926. Route 1 became the commerce route for many New England towns, driving a shift from many of the older routes that would subsequently be renamed “1A.” Though research is limited on the letter designation, one may speculate there were economic motivations for bringing travelers back to the old parts of town. Decades later, the Interstate system in New England was started in the 1950s, with Interstate 95 becoming the bypass (in most parts) to Routes 1 and 1A. Interstate 95 from New England to Florida was completed in 1970.
In this region it’s not unusual to find Route 1A, Route 1, and Interstate 95 in close proximity to one another. Though each of these roads represents different times in New England history, the richest and most interesting is 1A. One of our favorite Route 1A drives is from Salem, MA to York, ME, with short stops in many coastal towns such as Newburyport, MA, and Portsmouth, NH. Be sure not to miss smaller towns along the way, as all have a great deal of history, charm, and things to see. Route 1A is also a cornucopia of site markers, small signs that evoke another era. Recently we stopped at one identifying the “Minister’s Woodlot” from 1660 in Rowley, MA.
Enjoy Route 1A in New England. Catch a flea market. Visit a museum. Nosh on some fried clams. It’s worth the diversion from Route 1 and Interstate 95. Please note that many sections of Route 1A are not contiguous and frequently branch off and back onto Route 1.
We’re fond of Cape Ann, and especially Gloucester, the oldest active fishing port in the United States. This city, which dates back to 1623, has it all: history, tradition, ethnicity, restaurants, art, museums, shops and natural beauty. We never need an excuse to visit the area, but when we received an invitation to join some North Shore friends for dinner at the Alchemy Bistro in Gloucester, we gladly accepted – or at least one of us did. The other, unfortunately, was hosting an event further inland in central MA, but let’s stick with Gloucester and return to the coast.
Alchemy is defined as the act of turning ordinary metal into gold. The aim of Alchemy Bistro is to turn extraordinary ingredients into culinary gold. On this night, the alchemist (also known as Chef Jeff Cala) spun course after course of wonderful dishes, mining flavors from Asia, Italy, France, and America, many of which were sourced with local, New England ingredients.
The meal was well organized and delicately balanced a bit of formality with a lack of pretentiousness – not an easy task at a tasting dinner. The staff maintained a nice cadence, allowing us to maintain lively and continual conversation over the centerpiece of food. The chefs emerged at each course and explained the preparation of the dishes along with the sourcing of ingredients. Concurrently, Matt Rose (the general manager) would share his vast knowledge of wine, beer and mixology by offering pairing suggestions for each individual item within the course.
Logistically, the dinner, spread between two tables, blended individual courses separated by samplings of communal tapas. The tapas selections were tastefully presented on rustic serving boards made especially for this evening by the artisans at Walker Creek Furniture of nearby Essex, MA. We’re partial to New England ingredients, even if that means non-edible ingredients (such as serving boards) too.
The dinner selections, representing a sampling of the broader menu, were diverse and creative. Some of the standouts and liquid accompaniments for the evening included: wild boar and native shrimp chopstick roll; cheese sampler paired with an Estrella Damm Inedit witbier from Barcelona by FerranAdrià (a new favorite); black pepper pappardelle carbonara with a farm raised duck egg (that was picked up by Chef Cala somewhere along his drive) nicely matched with Corte Rugolin Monte Danieli Amarone Classico; and, finally, warm chocolate soufflé complemented by a stunning Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
I applaud the team at Alchemy Bistro and their creative spin on New England cuisine. One doesn’t need to drive to a major city like Boston to have a wonderful dining experience. Alchemy proved that. The restaurant plans to host more of these events, which is good news for the New England palate.
Visitors, as well as locals, north of Boston should seek out the many wonderful things both culinary and non-culinary in the region. Take in some of the Gloucester sights and then head to Alchemy to reflect on them over a delicious dinner.
Recently, my friend Erica Holthausen and I were fortunate to grab the last two available seats for an Artisan French Bread class at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School, a small, family run baking school in Lyman, ME. Stone Turtle is an unpretentious, hidden gem that turns out some wonderfully executed and practical lessons on the art of bread baking. (Hidden indeed as the directions had us turn at an old landmark, roadside stand painted with a weathered Moxie logo.) On this brisk fall day, ten participants surrounded the kitchen’s large rectangular table. The group makeup was diverse: three men and seven women ranging in age from late twenty-something to over seventy years.
The owners Michael and Sandy Jubinsky are native New Englanders originally from Lowell, MA. Michael is a retired engineer, and Sandy, a talented artist specializing in painted porcelain. Both have been cooking, baking, studying and writing about food for more than forty years, which shows as they work harmoniously in the Stone Turtle kitchen. Michael leads the class instruction while sharing his passion and skills for producing all forms of bread, the proverbial staff of life. He is an incredibly patient man, capable of teaching everyone from the novice baker to the more experienced professional. He couples this with a great sense of humor and a vast reservoir of knowledge. Sandy wears a name tag that simply says “The Boss,” and is flanked by the couple’s son, John, who keeps the Le Panyol oven fired up and ready. Together they help move Michael along at a comfortable pace.
Before he embarked on making the bread, Michael quickly noted that one must bake at least 2,000 loaves before feeling success. As daunting as that sounded, he further added that even with that behind him or her, a bread baker will continue to refine skills, striving to improve with each subsequent loaf.
As class began, we were each given equal portions of poolish, a pre-ferment originally used by Polish bakers in the nineteenth century and later adapted by French pâtissiers in pastry making. The purpose of the poolish, which Michael made the evening before, is to improve the bread by increasing the acidity, extending the shelf life, and allowing more depth of flavor to develop prior to mixing the final dough. It is, however, not a sourdough starter.
Everything involved in the entire baking exercise was done by hand -no mixers. The dough, surprisingly damp and sticky, coated everyone’s hands and echoed Michael’s mantra of “wetter is better.” Between the rising, resting and shaping, he demonstrated how to make a variety of French breads along with a few Italian breads. For the latter, he used French techniques to make both a rosemary focaccia and a pizza crust, which we later enjoyed for a delicious lunch.
Much like an old French Citroën deux chevaux automobile, the Le Panyol oven (a.k.a. “the Stone Turtle”) is a labor of love. It requires multiple cycles of heating and cooling over several days to gradually raise the temperature to the desired level for baking. Just as we were preparing to bake the bread, John removed the oven coals and said that no additional heat was necessary; the retained heat, stored in twelve inches of ceramic, would be sufficient. Bake times will often vary because no adjustments are possible once the breads go in.
The class participated in every step of the baking process, right down to a rapid, continuous procession of peels (long handled paddles used to place bread in a deep oven) orchestrated by Michael who carefully placed our risen breads in the hot oven. While waiting for our newly conceived children to finish, we sampled a French boule and a boule d’olive that Michael made earlier in the day. If ours turned out half as good, we were going to be in for a treat!
Much of the baking equipment was handmade out of practicality, which enhanced the charm and rustic feel of the whole experience. The paddle we used to gently roll our risen dough onto the peels was constructed of cedar clapboard donned with pantyhose. It performed flawlessly.
One of the great things about this class at Stone Turtle was that all of the ingredients – including those used in the poolish – are readily available to the non-professional. Some of our flour was locally sourced from Maine’s Aroostook County. The recipes provided will work well for the home baker. For those of us without a Le Panyol at home, Michael also demonstrated impressive results using a standard oven. That’s great, but having a Le Panyol in my own backyard would be a nice Mother’s Day gift. (Hint, hint other Palaverer.)
After cleaning up and saying our goodbyes, Erica and I — along with our beautiful bâtards — returned home. The breads were exceptional. So memorable was this experience that I promptly signed up the other Palaverer for the Artisan Italian class next month. Our Christmas baking should prove interesting.
Thanks to the team at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School (Michael, Sandy, and John) for the wonderfully rewarding, educational, and delicious November day in Maine. I have only 1,998 more loaves to go!
Whatever your baking ability, the Le Panyol at Stone Turtle is quite an experience. Finding a little bit of France Down East in Maine made it even better.
On a recent, beautiful, summer evening, approximately seventy-five lucky individuals converged on Wilson Farm in Lexington, MA at closing time. Gathering among rows of tomato plants and other ripening farm vegetables, the crowd slowly filled the chairs that flanked three long tables draped with white tablecloth and adorned with beautiful fresh cut flowers. Many in attendance had never met before, but would share a common bond tonight: a culinary experience with fresh food from New England.
Dining in a location where one typically doesn’t sit down to eat (like in a field, a dock or a barn) is a novelty, and only added to the anticipation of knowing that much of our dinner had been picked hours earlier from the very field where we now sat. For us, it was reminiscent of the feeling we would get while picnicking with our young sons on a rainy day in our living room: out of the ordinary yet quite special.
Through the din of conversation, our servers (folks who worked at the farm stand and recently trained for the evening) began serving up course after course upon the table, some plated individually, and others offered family-style. With each course, Wilson Farm Chef Todd Heberlein would proudly and passionately explain each dish’s contents, philosophy, and thoughtful preparation. The colors, aromas, and flavors were an amplification of their freshness and a testament to Chef Heberlein’s artistry.
As the courses passed, the sun was replaced by candlelight, adding another welcome dimension to the evening. Ultimately, seventy-five content, satiated people left Wilson Farm as friends – not just with one another, but also with a passionate local chef and with a farm that very much embraces its New England heritage.
There is no better way to celebrate the harvest than to dine on food, simply and lovingly prepared where it was grown, shared at a community table among people who appreciate it and enjoyed in the fresh air beneath the open sky.
As we’ve said many times before: New England is as much about the people as it is about the history, culture, food and the landscape. We saw this here as well. Jim Wilson, one of the owners of Wilson Farm, was present the entire evening, sharing his big smile and ensuring that we were enjoying ourselves. Chef Heberlein didn’t hide either, making the rounds and checking to make sure we were smiling. Great New Englanders. Great farm. Great evening.
There’s something about a visit to the beautiful Green Mountain State of Vermont that always has us wanting to return before we’ve even left. Upon entering the state, we immediately sense a shift in the air and in the scenery, but surprisingly we also sense a shift within ourselves. Simply being among the pristine, New England beauty clears our minds. Bucolic open spaces dotted with quaint villages surrounded by magnificent mountains would put anyone at ease. And we always sleep better in Vermont, waking refreshed, recharged and rejuvenated.
Vermont isn’t just a special place; it’s a way of life. Vermonters clearly live what they love and love what they live. The visitor quickly discovers the striking connection between the green beauty that surrounds and the passion for all things green, which includes both philosophy and food. There is equanimity here.
In Vermont, wherever you turn, you drink up beauty like rich milk, and feel its wholesome strength seep into your sinews.
Threescore: The Autobiography of Sarah N. Cleghorn, 1936
Our attraction to things local seems endless throughout Vermont and includes farmers’ markets, restaurants, and country stores. Our recent trip was to the magnum opus of local, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. What a fête it was, hosted on the beautiful grounds of Shelburne Farms with Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks for its stunning backdrop. With a canvas like this, we knew we would be in for a treat.
The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival
We arrived as the event opened and discovered it immediately bustling with visitors. Though the festival was crowded, we still managed to catch up with fellow cheese aficionados from home – Richard Auffrey, Jennifer Ede, and Jane Ward. We also had the chance to meet and chat with the knowledgeable Nancy Gilman from Provisions International, a regional distributor that works with many Vermont producers.
The event consisted of a vast array of tables staffed by many Vermont cheese artisans and purveyors, along with a few “flatland” participants from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. There were so many wonderful and diverse cheeses to sample. Though some of the more familiar, widely available cheese producers were present (Blue Ledge Farm, Cabot Creamery, Jasper Hill Farm and Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery), we decided to focus our attention on lesser-known artisans, some of whose work we had experienced and others we had not.
Artisans & Purveyors
Aside from cheese, we also enjoyed meeting and speaking with many other passionate, hardworking, dedicated Vermonters who were proud to share their local provisions, some of which we’ve enjoyed before, some we’d heard about, and some we discovered for the first time. This included the many non-cheese artisans presenting breads, crackers, jams, syrups, brownies, candies, condiments, wines, beers, spirits, and meats.
What a rich and rewarding experience it was to listen to personal, hardscrabble stories of why, where and how these craftsmen do what they do. Such stories help connect us not only their products and Vermont, but also to New England. We look forward to following them closely as they continue to refine their crafts.
On the ride home we discussed the festival and other things that make Vermont an interesting destination. We reexamined weekend highlights, food favorites, and interesting people. Even after many, many trips to the Green Mountain State, we realized that there is still so much yet to explore not only from a food perspective, but a historical and recreational standpoint as well.
Fortunately, we always manage (figuratively) to bring a bit of Vermont home with us, and this weekend was no exception. Even better was that we did manage (literally) to bring home some excellent cheese, beer, and other foodstuffs.
We love oysters. Even better, we’re spoiled by some great offerings from five of our six New England states. (Sorry Vermont.) What’s so interesting is that even though most of our oysters share a common ancestry, they truly take on the characteristics of where they grow. Call it “bivalve terroir.” For us, it provides a different dining experience, as we taste offerings all the way from Damariscotta in Maine to Ned’s Island in Connecticut. We find that mignonette sauce, rather than cocktail sauce, amplifies these regional characteristics and brings the oyster experience to a new level.
Because we can reach the coast of all five New England oysters states in less than 90 minutes, getting fresh shellfish is never an issue. Having children who know how to shuck makes it even better because we can relax on the deck with a bottle of Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a local craft brew such as a Harpoon Brewery UFO Hefeweizen. Not surprisingly, our children love oysters too, so our “shuck tax” is about 50 percent. (Note: (1) we only buy from trusted sources and (2) our children were held off until they were older.)
This all sounds great, right? We can end our little oyster tale now on a positive note, but we’re not going to do that. Why? Because we also like going out for oysters. Here’s the rub: we are seeing escalating prices – $3.50 per oyster – at many venues that have raw bars. Let’s do some math. We pay $0.99 retail per oyster, which means wholesale price is likely around $0.50. Even with labor and reasonable discard, how can establishments justify a 600% markup? Restaurant wines don’t command this premium. We’ve been paying about $2.50 per oyster in New York City.
C’mon folks, why such a “raw” deal on one of our regional specialties? You’re doing those of us who love oysters a disservice. Thank goodness there are still plenty of places with raw bars that offer a fair price and give us some great New England oysters.
Childhood memories, unlike other thoughts, have strong emotional dimensions that include amplified aspects of sight and smell. I discovered that food, because of its social and sensuous qualities, unlocks a treasure chest of childhood memories. With this in mind, I decided to use food to probe into the childhood memories of my in-laws and garner insight into ethnic New England during the Great Depression. So often we think about our region and its colonial past, town greens, and white church steeples, yet we forge many of the ethnic threads that combine to form the broader New England fabric.
From Old Italy to New England
My in-laws, Umberto and Isabel (Celani) Ciampa, grew up in Boston’s Italian North End during the Great Depression. They rarely speak about their past unless they are reminiscing with their contemporaries at some gathering such as a wedding or (more frequently) a wake. I found the best way to gain any insight into their childhoods was to be direct and use their culinary memories as a catalyst. For the most part, after some prodding, they appeased me. I’m not quite sure why it is so difficult to get them to share their stories; perhaps they consider their lives nothing special or extraordinary. Nonetheless, they just can’t understand why someone would find their lives interesting.
Once they begin articulating these fascinating, often-humorous childhood stories, the details innocently reveal a side of them rarely seen. Their tales not only shed light on a generation, but also introduce me to friends and family who seem to exist only in old photographs. I’ve had the privilege of subsequently meeting some of them, but their numbers are diminishing, a loss for all of us. These stories fill in missing gaps and explain the idiosyncrasies and unique views of my in-laws, particularly when it comes to food.
My father-in-law, Umberto, “Bert,” was born in the North End on Charter Street, the third child of six children and second of four sons. His parents were from the villages around the southern Italian town of Avellino. His immediate family moved often and lived in various apartments in either the North End or the nearby Boston suburb of Medford.
Pepper and Egg Sandwiches
As a child, his mother would make him pepper and egg sandwiches for his school lunch. Frequently he would trade those sandwiches for a friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Why?” I asked. (I would have preferred the pepper & egg myself) “Because,” he replied, “it was something we never had at home and I loved it.” Then the stories began to flow.
Bert immediately spoke of tripe, one of his favorite comfort foods. He laments that unlike during his youth, tripe appears less often on both kitchen tables and contemporary restaurant menus. He still enjoys it when he is fortunate enough to find it.
He then spoke glowingly about his mother making pasta every week and laying it upon their beds to dry; a favorite was fusilli, prepared by dexterously wrapping the dough around a dowel.
Basil and Gravy
His mother grew many things, including basil, which decorated windowsills and fire escapes. I would imagine if you closed your eyes, you’d smell the tomato, garlic and basil wafting from their open window to the street below. Sunday was “gravy” (tomato sauce with meat) day.
My mother-in-law, Isabel (Lisa Bell on her birth certificate due to a poorly interpreted Italian accent) was also born in the North End, in a third floor walk-up apartment above Parziale’s Bakery (est 1907) on Prince Street. She was the sixth child of seven, and third girl of four daughters. Ironically, she and her sisters were not taught to cook by their Italian mother, who also came from a village not far from Avellino. This surprised me. One can only speculate the reasons: safety, duty, and impatience.
My mother-in-law has an aversion to basil, which surprised me, but she could never explain why. She learned how to cook from her mother-in-law after she got married, who, ironically, loved basil, but it didn’t matter. She speaks fondly about her father, a waiter at the Cantina Italiana (est 1931) on Hanover Street. He always cooked on Tuesday, his day off, while drinking wine and listening to Enrico Caruso.
Over lunch last fall, I asked her if she remembered having a favorite dish. “Oh, I loved the snails my mother would cook in garlic and oil.” Purchased by the bag from Giuffre’s Fish Market at the corner of Cross Street and Salem Street, the snails would constantly crawl out of the bag in the sink and up the kitchen walls. Members of the family would pluck them down and place them back into the bag until dinner.
After the snail account, she moved to speaking of eels. Prior to becoming part of a family meal, the eels occupied the family bathtub. This description evoked audible gasps from her grandsons, whichs turned into a discussion they won’t forget and will likely share with their own children.
Pigeons, locally grown and caught (meaning snatched via an open window from a windowsill) were another culinary delight in the North End, though not to my mother-in-law. I found this out the hard way. As a new bride, I carefully and meticulously prepared a special dinner for my new in-laws that would include Rock Cornish game hens à la Silver Palate. Four lovely, brown, succulent birds came out of my oven. When I placed upon the table, my mother-in-law proclaimed that she would not be able to eat dinner. Why I asked? (Shocked and disappointed for I knew she ate chicken- although never on the bone) “I cannot eat them because they remind me of the pigeons from the North End.” Wait. Wasn’t this the same woman who expressed such passion for snails?
Both of my in-laws will not eat a lentil in any form. I discovered that they were not alone among many of their North End peers. The reason? Apparently there was a pasta and lentil dish from Campania that all the southern Italian children in the North End would be forced to eat regularly. How often? Enough that the mere taste of a lentil elicits a gag reflex. I surmise that this pasta and lentil dish comprised a protein-filled meatless meal, very economical for large families during the Great Depression.
And We Weave
Ironically, this is not just an Italian-American story, but also a New England narrative. Our region is home to many ethnic groups (Native American, French, Portuguese, Irish, Eastern European, Latino, Asian, Indian, African etc.) which share their history along with our colonial forefathers.
New England’s ethnic diversity is a true gift, one that is easily taken for granted, but noticeably absent in many areas of the country. Failing to capture these sometimes-quirky snippets from long ago means the human side of life gets buried with the storyteller.
Gather those family memories, stories and recipes from whichever New England state was home. For it is these seemingly insignificant threads that when woven together, create our regional, historical fabric. A fabric so strong, durable, and rich it can only be found here.