Photo: Jack Amick, Flickr
Few cities can claim foodie credentials of Boston's caliber – after all, its go-to nickname is a nod to one of its staple foodstuffs: Beantown. And those no-nonsense baked beans are a tip off to the matter-of-fact approach to menus that most locals take. "It comes from the whole Yankee Puritan side, taking pleasure in making do, not wasting, using up – it has permeated a lot of our food traditions here," explains Georgia Orcutt, who works for Oldways a Boston-based organization that promotes traditional, non-processed food. She cites scrod as a key example: on fish menus, it will be listed alongside salmon or cod. But scrod is simply "whatever fish anyone can get their hands on as catch of the day" – no Bostonian fisherman would waste any fish once caught. "It's a combination of needing to be frugal for survival, for the Pilgrims, and that Puritan work ethic," agrees food writer Susan Nye, "That thriftiness has existed in Boston for centuries – my dad has a funny story about how his friends would come back from Christmas to university with bags filled with their grandmothers' leftovers." That Yankee frugality continues to ricochet round the restaurants here – and it's never been more timely, as Orcutt notes. "The Boston way of cooking – how can you use up something rather than waste it? It's coming back big time in this economy."
Georgia Orcutt calls Boston's namesake treat, beans, "the essence of Yankee frugality" and says that many families still maintain a tradition of a weekly bean supper. "When you think back to the 1620s, you only had a couple of months of summer to grow food and then it had to last you 9 months – beans were a big part of that," adds Susan Nye. Boston's recipe differs from New England at large by subbing molasses for maple syrup as a sweetener; and though white beans are traditional, Orcutt recommends trying a speckled variety known as Jacob's Cattle as a tangy alternative.
THE BOILED DINNER
Another frugal-leaning classic, especially popular around St Patrick's Day. "It's a giant assemblage put together using corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots then cooked for a long time, usually hours," Orcutt explains. The stew-like result is then recycled – as hash, for instance – over the next few days.
BOSTON CREAM PIE
The official dessert of Massachusetts – an honor it only nabbed in 1986 – this is actually not a pie but a round cake split and filled with vanilla custard, then doused in chocolate frosting. The first Boston Cream Pie was cooked up at the Parker House on School Street -- the longest continually operating hotel in America -- as an exotic dessert by a homesick French chef using that Gallic staple, crème pâtissière.
Fish chowder's an Eastern seaboard staple, but while Rhode Island's is clear and there are tomatoes in Long Island's version (a nod to its rich loam), "that's too exotic for a Yankee," Orcutt says. Bostonians take chowder thick and creamy, made from fish or clams with potatoes in a milky base. Nye adds that milk is the only acceptable base – historically, it was thicker, more like half and half, hence the variations today based on cream (The contemporary canned version, thickened using potato starch, is an aberration) And chowder is always served in Boston with flaky oyster crackers – never bread.
LOBSTERS & LOBSTER ROLLS
"Place mats will be trotted out, even in fancy restaurants, with diagrams on how to deal with this creature whole," Orcutt notes; for a good Boston steamed lobster, she suggests hitting Locke Ober or Durgin Park. Mayonnaisey rolls are sold everywhere, even from street carts, but "what makes one very, very Boston, is that it must be served on a roll that has a split top."
Packaged in Atomic Era-glass jars, this delicious if ragingly artificial-seeming egg-white-and-vanilla spread was invented in Somerville, MA, by a door-to-door salesman. Add this to a Teddie sandwich (see below), and you've a killer Fluffernutter.
The New England Confectionary Company, or NECCo, has been churning out American classic candy for more than a century. It's best known for its Conversation Candies, or Sweethearts, stamped with truisms (and a few clichés) as well as namesake wafers, though Bostonians also love a lesser known candy recipe, the Mary Janes, made from molasses and peanut butter. "And yes, she was a real person," laughs Orcutt.
TEDDIE PEANUT BUTTER
The locally produced peanut butter's recognizable from its logo, a cheery stuffed bear. Though it's now available in a plethora of different versions – High Protein, Low Carb, No Cholesterol – the best is still a tub of the original smooth peanut butter.
YANKEE POT ROAST
The brisket-like slab of meat, often sold expressly as Yankee Pot Roast, is to be simmered slowly until it's fall-off-the-bone cooked. "This shows how leftovers never go to waste," recalls Susan Nye, "When I was a child, this was a big thing to have on a Sunday dinner because it would give several meals later in the week." It would be re-purposed with rice, filling sandwiches, moistened with fresh gravy or even spread on toast.