Certain foods just scream New England. Lobster, clam chowder, baked beans...we know all the hits. Visitors from all over the world come to marvel at our clam bakes, drink down our Dunkin’ iced coffees, and pay a visit to the Sausage Guy outside Fenway Park.
But we’re so much more than that. We’re home to frappes and Necco Wafers, Boston Cream Pie and Marshmallow Fluff. Whether sipping a refreshing Moxie, the pride of Lisbon, Maine, or wolfing down a bag of cookies from Pepperidge Farms in Norwalk, Connecticut, New England is full of culinary opportunity for those willing to dig a little deeper and go off the beaten path.
Here are five unconventional foods that call New England home.
There once was a woman named Anna. She constantly provoked her husband through her laziness, especially in matters of baking. She made the same plain bread day after day, never varying the recipe. One particular day her husband became so aggravated he threw a bag of cornmeal at her and missed completely. The meal spilled into the dough she was working on, and the husband kneading the ingredients together, muttering “Anna, damn her!” From the ashes of his profanity a legend rose.
Whether that’s exactly the way it went down or not is up for discussion. History does know the recipe of yeast, cornmeal, flour, and molasses originated in Rockport, Massachusetts, sometime around 1850. The turn of the 20th century saw blue-smocked delivery men bringing loaves to Rockport and neighboring Gloucester via horse-drawn carts. The bread’s popularity didn’t expand much past that area until mid-century, when restaurant owners Bill and Melissa Smith built a modern bakery and expanded availability all throughout New England.
This Anadama bread recipe couldn’t be simpler to make. (Rumor has it white flour makes the tastiest loaves.) It’s dense and dark, with just a touch of sweetness from the molasses. Fry a slice or two in a little butter to warm it up, then sprinkle on a pinch of cinnamon sugar, and bask in the deliciousness of Anna’s alleged laziness.
Ahh, scrod. The nearly ubiquitous fish & chips choice at clam shacks everywhere. How do we explain to someone outside New England what scrod exactly is? Maybe it’s small cod or haddock. Maybe it’s a name for pieces of generic white fish. We may never be sure.
Etymologically speaking, the origin of the name “scrod” has a few theories. The name is generally credited to chefs at the Parker House Hotel (already immortalized for creating Boston cream pie and their inimitable dinner rolls, as well as being the employers of Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, and a pre-famous Emeril Lagasse). Rather than represent a specific fish, they used the term to mean the freshest and youngest fish of the day.
Some think “scrod” is an acronym for “small cod remaining on deck”. Others think the name derived from the Cornish word scraw, meaning “split, salt, and dry”. Sailors would pack the dried fish for long journeys. A more likely possibility is the Dutch word schrood, meaning “a piece cut off”.
Scrod is super-versatile, taking well to broiling and frying. This lemon-panko recipe is a favorite of mine, and who can resist the classic Ritz-cracker topped version? Of course, you could always rock old-school fish & chips and a couple ice-cold ‘Gansetts…
Johnnycakes have been a staple of Rhode Island cuisine for more than 350 years, and they are shrouded in mystery. To this day battles rage over the very definition of what actually defines these addictive little cornmeal patties, and even the name itself is up for debate. Are they made with milk or water? How thick is a proper Johnnycake? Are they “Johnnycakes” or “Jonnycakes”? Journeycakes? So many questions.
Not to fear. The Society for the Propagation of the Jonnycake Tradition in Rhode Island stepped in to help (not even kidding). They declared authentic Johnnycakes must be made from whitecap flint corn. It’s a texture thing. Unfortunately for “those flaky ladies” (a self-imposed nickname), that particular strain of corn has a low yield and thus has faded from planting popularity in the state except for the few acres planted each year by the University of Rhode Island to keep the tradition alive and appease those who clamor for the ancient grain.
These delicious little rounds are served at all times during the day, and in all sorts of ways. Breakfast could feature butter and syrup or molasses. For a snack, they can be served crumbled up in a bowl with milk and a dusting of sugar. At dinnertime, Johnnycakes can replace the usual starch on your plate. There are even dessert options. (I’m particularly fond of Kenyon’s Grist Mill’s pumpkin recipe topped with whipped cream and nutmeg as they suggest.)
P.S. You’ll be happy to know in the 1940’s the Rhode Island state legislature came to the legal conclusion Rhode Island Johnnycakes must be made with whitecap flint corn. Any cornmeal made otherwise cannot legally use the appellation “Rhode Island” on the label.
Ever heard of Potato Bargain? How about Necessary Mess? Tilton’s Glory?
Beyond being amazing names for mediocre race horses, these are actually all the same thing. Basically a melange of potatoes and vegetables smothered in salt pork and water and simmered for a few hours, this recipe is thought to have originated on Martha’s Vineyard somewhere around the early twentieth century, and may be a descendent of the dreaded New England Boiled Dinner.
Incredibly easy to make dishes like these were important because they utilized whatever was leftover in the pantry, and that usually meant tubers and root veggies like carrots, onions, and parsnips. (Fun fact about parsnips - they need cold weather to convert their starches into sugars for their appealing flavor, and so they’re typically harvested in late fall.)
(On a semi-related note if you’ve ever wanted to send someone a message engraved in a potato, PotatoParcel.com is there to help.)
American Chop Suey
This was a favorite dish growing up, and I confess it’s still a guilty pleasure for me. The simple and tasty combination of ground beef, pasta, onions, carrots, and tomato sauce makes for great comfort food. Typically prepared in a frying pan instead of baking in an oven like a casserole, American Chop Suey is quick and easy to make, reflecting the early New England culinary sensibilities which made it so regionally popular.
Despite the name there is little connection with Asian cuisine. The version most people know today evolved from the early 20th century when a blend of vegetables and meat was stir-fried with a splash of soy sauce and served over rice. In the 1930’s the recipe had changed to include bell peppers and cabbage. By the middle of the century American Chop Suey had dropped any ambition of relating to Asian cuisine, instead embracing its Italian-American characteristics. Pasta, especially elbow macaroni, replaced rice. Tomato and cheese was added, and the soy sauce was replaced with Worcestershire.
This recipe makes a big ol’ batch, and that’s fine by me. Not only does this stuff taste great, it’s also quite durable in the fridge. Make a batch Sunday night, and work lunch is served for at least a few days.